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The Voice of the Black Community

Arts and Entertainment

40 years of Spyro Gyra
Band’s tour stops in Charlotte Dec. 14
Published Thursday, December 12, 2013
by Michaela L. Duckett

Jazz group Spyro Gyra to perform in Charlotte with the Yellowjackets Dec. 14 at Knight Theater.

Spyro Gyra, one of the most popular and longest-running jazz bands in the history of American music, will celebrate its 40th anniversary in 2014.

Its members have accomplished a lot in the past four decades – recording 29 records, selling 10 million albums and performing over 5,000 shows. Earlier this year, they challenged themselves to do something they had not done before – improvise an entire album.

In April, Spyro Gyra rented a studio in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Over the course of three days, the band wrote and recorded what would become their latest album, “The Rhinebeck Sessions.”

The band is currently on tour and scheduled to make a stop in Charlotte to perform a concert with the Yellowjackets Dec. 14 at Knight Theater at Levine Center for the Arts. Visit www.BlumenthalArts.org for show times and ticket information.

The Post recently caught up with Spyro Gyra bandleader Jay Beckenstein. In the following Q&A, Beckenstein reflects on the band’s longevity and explains how it got its funky name.

Question: What can fans expect from the Dec. 14 show in Charlotte?

Answer: We have a new CD out that’s doing really well called “The Rhinebeck Sessions” so we’ll do a few songs from that, for certain. But because the band has such a long, long history and so many CDs that we try to pick a few things from the different decades to add to the show. If you haven’t seen us live, most of the music is instrumental, but it’s pretty high energy. We are not still around after 40 years because it wasn’t entertaining.

Q: Speaking of being around for 40 years, what do you believe is the secret to your longevity?

A: You do have to be blessed with good health and things like that, so that’s part of it. The other part of it, is that the people in the band and around the band have shown themselves to be really good people, interested in the music and each other. The other thing is that a band is really good place for a musician to be. You get to play your music, your way. It’s not about me being a leader. I’m not out in front. It really is about being a group so that everybody gets a chance to show their stuff. So the secret is the people involved and that it’s creatively, very rewarding.

Q: How did the band come up with its name?

A: I studied a little green alga in college that was called spirogyra. It looked really pretty under a microscope. A couple of years later, we were working at a bar in Buffalo, N.Y. We were just called “the jazz band every Tuesday night.” We didn’t have a name. The club owner got a new sign for the place. We came in that night and he told us that if we didn’t come up with a name, he was going to get somebody else. So I remembered this silly sounding alga. I said, “Call it spirogyra.” He misspelled it, and that’s been our name ever since.

Q: Initially you studied biology in college. How did you make the transition into music?

A: Gladly. (Laughter). Biology was work. Music was fun, and I was 20. What choice would you make? I know what I did, and it worked out for the best.

Q: How did you get into music?

A: My parents loved music. My mom was an opera singer. My father lived and breathed for jazz. From his early childhood, he admired jazz and jazz artists. So he claims that he played Charlie Parker for me in the crib. And, so I grew up in a household of classical music and jazz.

Q: Are there any contemporary artists you enjoy listening to now?

A: I admire certain talented people in the field, but I’m not so sure that music appeals to me all that much these days… But I like going overseas and finding some music that I haven’t heard before and that’s not so common. Lately, I have been listening to a lot of Brazilian artists… I love Brazilian music. It’s beautiful.

Q: As a group, Spyro Gyra has done over 5,000 shows. What are some of your most memorable moments on stage?

A: As I look back on the 40 years, I think of all of the people we’ve played with and that’s really been so awesome. We have warmed up for Earth, Wind & Fire. We’ve warmed up for Miles Davis, and we’ve shared stages with George Benson, Dizzy Gillespie and all of these great entertainers and acts that we’ve worked with over the years.

Q: Are their any artists that you haven’t worked with and hope to work with in the future?

A: I would love to play music with Stevie Wonder some day, somewhere.


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