Asylum Hill's Steve Mitchell: From Church To Cabaret
Minister Of Music Shows A Secular Side At Japanalia
By OWEN MCNALLY
October 30, 2012
Vocalist Steve Mitchell , a consummate professional Hartford church musician, reveals the secular side of his multi-faceted musical persona as he takes the stage Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m. at the West End nightclub Japanalia Eiko, one of Hartford 's hippest showbiz shrines devoted to jazz and cabaret performances.
Minister of music and arts at Hartford 's historic Asylum Hill Congregational Church, Mitchell is a much sought after soloist in church and classical settings. He is calling his live foray into the cabaret limelight, "Steve Mitchell 'Unchurched': Songs You Won't Hear in Church." Among the "unchurched" material he'll serve to the Japanalia faithful are his own interpretations of works from the Great American Songbook, with an obeisance towards the Tin Pan Alley trinity of Gershwin, Kern and Porter.
Mitchell will also do a bit of vocal proselytizing on behalf of such contemporary singer/songwriters as Stevie Wonder, Madonna, John Mayer, Matt Alber, John Bucchino and Susan Werner.
For his venture into secular turf, the versatile vocalist is supported by, among others, his church colleague Dan Campolieta, organist and associate music director at AHCC. A skilled pianist/composer, Campolieta is as much at home with church and classical music as he is with jazz, and has played as a member of Hartford percussionist Ed Fast's steaming Latin jazz and bebop band, Conga Bop.
Mitchell's musical disciples for his Japanalia gig also include guitarist Dave Veslocki, a producer and performer who has appeared with legends ranging from Clark Terry to Derek Trucks, and the hot Granby drummer Charlie Dye. A student of jazz and classical percussion, Dye has played with such celebrated Connecticut musicians as Joel Frahm, Nat Reeves and Stephen Haynes.
A native of Miami, Fla., Mitchell, with his wife Rhonda, who is now communications manager at AHCC, and their then two young children, Katie and David, arrived in Connecticut in January of 2000., Mitchell decided to leave his post as minister of the arts at Coral Gables Congregational Church in South Florida to take up the music and arts mantle at AHCC.
The Asylum Hill church uses music and art as a catalytic force in its vital, wide-ranging community and social outreach programs. Mitchell has made his mark through his ministry with its diversified, creatively challenging responsibilities, including directing the Sanctuary Choir and organizing the church's prestigious Asylum Hill Concert Series.
As part of Mitchell's mission, he has been a prime mover in the progressive role that jazz has played at AHCC, an innovation that was initiated by the church's former senior minister, Rev. Gary Miller, a trumpet playing pastor and jazz advocate who in his pre-ministerial days had toured with Dixieland bands. Miller, who arrived at AHCC about a year before Mitchell, opened the door to jazz, adding the great American art form to the church's longtime embrace of classical music, a pro-jazz policy that Mitchell has sustained and expanded.
The "jazz friendly" church, AHCC has presented concerts by the Hartford Jazz Society (HJS), and serves as the stormy weather haven for HJS's Monday Night Jazz Series in Bushnell Park. In September it launched an innovative "Jazz Worship Service," which is held on the second Wednesday of the month, featuring top area jazz musicians and is free and open to the public.
Under Mitchell's aegis, AHCC in recent years has brought premier jazz artists like Terence Blanchard to perform in its sanctuary. The world-renowned jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, who grew up in West Hartford, performed a solo concert there last month that drew nearly 500 fans, a decidedly robust turnout for any indoor, admission-charging jazz concert in Hartford. The event raised $11,000 for the Asylum Hill Boys & Girls Club as part of the John and Edie Murphy Music for Humanity Concert Series.
Before Mitchell entered full-time, professional service as a church musician, he had enjoyed a successful career as an award-winning, idealistic arts educator in South Florida. Even then before becoming "churched," he was a true believer in using music and art as a means to enrich, inspire and maybe even turn-around the lives of his public school students.
His classical resume's solo credits include his appearance in Miami with the New World Symphony Orchestra under the baton of the noted conductor, Michael Tilson Thomas.
Mitchell worked, while a student at the University of Miami, with the great June Taylor, the choreographer most famous for her June Taylor Dancers' dazzling, kaleidoscopic, Busby Berkeley-like routines on the old Jackie Gleason TV show. A young, maybe even a bit starry-eyed Mitchell worked right alongside Taylor as a choreographer helping to orchestrate the movement of the half-time entertainment that jammed the field at the Orange Bowl and at the Orange Bowl parade as well. And, no, he wasn't a gofer, but a real contributing choreographer for the mega-scaled but well-tailored productions that kept performers in step and in time.
Recently, The Courant caught up with the always on-the-run Mitchell for an interview in his church office, the busy staging ground for his multiple music and arts projects. His uptempo, ambitious activities are attested to by his busy desk cluttered with books, music, papers, something that looks like an unfinished artwork, proposals for local and international arts-based outreach projects, notes and various works and ideas in progress.
Right now, Mitchell, the high-energy, cultural minister of diversity, is seated, a force at rest, and ready to focus on one single idea, his upcoming performance as a headliner at Japanalia.
Q: What is it like for you, a church musician, to sing "unchurched" music in a completely secular, nightclub setting like Japanalia's?
A: It scares the heck out of me.
Q: Why is that? You're a seasoned, professional performer.
A: Let me tease that apart for a minute. It's something that I've always loved doing and have wanted to do. So this is an opportunity for me to go back through great music that I have always loved and just kind of sung in the shower for lack of any other opportunities.
But the church is a very safe place to perform. It's not called a sanctuary by accident. I've been able to create music here at Asylum Hill in the loving community of people that support what's being expressed and support even the experimentation with the music that happens in worship. That's a very safe place to be. Step out of that environment…that's a little scary.
Q: Is the difference then that your persona as a singer is affected by the venue?
A: When I'm performing music in church, it's not about me. It's about the message that's being shared. It's about the story being told. It's about glorifying something other than me.
Contrast that with being on the stage at Japanalia. There everybody is looking at me and waiting to hear what the next song is that I'm going to sing. Suddenly, it's about me. And that's kind of weird.
Q: Does a solo headliner appearance like this one maybe rekindle youthful, musical dreams of stardom?
A: At one point in my life, early on, I had dreamed of just heading to New York, to Broadway. "This is it," I thought, "I'm going to be a star."
Q: So what happened?
A: I met Rhonda, the love of my life, in high school. And, all of a sudden, I started thinking about what does it mean to have a job and raise a family. So I majored in education, not performance. I knew I was a good teacher, could make a living at it, and could have a family. So, maybe that's my greatest success. It's not really about music at all.
Q: Do you believe there's a connection between music and the sacred?
A: I truly believe that music is sacred. I love when people talk about sacred and secular music as if they were different. Music itself is sacred--both magical entrance and gift.
Q: Can the gift be flawed?
A: It's possible, of course, for us to screw that gift up. I'm not just talking about bad quality performances. You can take the sacred gift and profane it. Look at all the styles of music that explore that region.
Would you hear Gangsta rap at Asylum Hill Congregational? No, you probably won't. So there is a possibility of profaning this gift. Nonetheless, music itself at its core, I believe, is sacred. That's why it touches us in ways that we can't express.
Q: You're a minister of music and art and use them for ministering purposes. Are you an ordained minister as well?
A: I'm not an ordained minister, but my role is an acknowledgement that we, the church, see music and the arts as a window to the presence of God. They are vehicles to minister to one another. And so I do definitely take on ministerial roles in terms of relationships, in terms of counseling, in terms of leadership inspiration.
Q: Is there a sacred aspect to jazz, which, along with the blues, was condemned in the past by some churches as being "the devil's music?"
A: With jazz there's improvisation… the fact that you are creating in the moment. I truly believe that there is no greater way to be connected to the Creator than through the act of creation. We are the continuation of God's creation.
So, any art form, whether it's re-creating music that's written by a composer or creating your own art work, or improvising jazz... these are moments of creativity. And, in my heart, that re-connects me to the Creator—Creator with a capital C. That's where I sense that spirit in great jazz musicians because they are literally continuing the initial creation going on forever.
I have never met a jazz musician who wasn't a deeply spiritual person. I think that's in the music, and a lot of it came out of the church.
Q: What about the jazz historians and jazz journalists who have put the emphasis on the music's roots in bordellos in New Orleans ?
A: You always hear a lot about the bordellos in New Orleans, and not so much about jazz's link to gospel music, to church music. But there have been attempts through recent history to reclaim the spiritual connections that this music has to God, as in Duke Ellington's sacred music concerts.
And, of course, the media loves the sexy part of a story, so it's more fun to write about the bordellos than the church's role. Bordellos play better and draw a lot more readers.
Q: What about the past historic role of sacred institutions in this jazz narrative?
A: As for the sacred community, for many decades it was doing everything it could to distance itself from jazz. That's why Saint Peter's jazz church in New York City became important because there were jazz musicians who, in their lives and religious upbringing, were extremely connected to their faith, but found they couldn't be connected to a church. Their faith was strong. They knew it. It was how they were raised, but they didn't feel institutional support until St. Peter's.
Q: Let's come back to your ties to music and the church. Your parents were musical and your father, an engineer and mechanic, had a taste for the theatrical, which accounts for your flair for the arts. But how did you become attracted to the church?
A: The church piece was there from the beginning. I was always involved in church music. I had grown up in a church with a great music program. I was singing in the choir in that church as an adult even while I was teaching at a middle school in South Florida .
Q: How does Asylum Hill's openness to jazz, including integrating it into the worship service, play within the congregation?
A: Oh, I think they love it and totally get it. Whatever we do, we strive to do it with the highest quality. Music, as I said, is a sacred gift, and if it is done with integrity and quality, it speaks to the heart. It doesn't matter if we're doing the Mozart Requiem, as we did in April, or if we're offering a gospel Sunday, which we did earlier in October, I'm going to demand the highest possible respect of the music and the integrity.
Q: Some dogmatic critics think that genres and neatly defined categories are the measure of all things. Is that standard true?
A: No. You can call yourself a classical buff, but when you hear gospel music done well, it can't help but move you. And if you grew up listening only to jazz and you are suddenly confronted with the Vivaldi Gloria with choir and orchestra, you can't help but be moved.
Q: Do you have any special projects on the back burner?
A: I'm dreaming of presenting selections from Duke Ellington's Sacred Concerts in the spring. It would be great to build the band with our own great jazz musicians in Hartford and combine with choirs of sister churches in the community.
Q: Among your various artistic pursuits, what have you done that you consider to be your greatest achievement.
A: I'm not sure. Maybe I haven't done it yet.
STEVE MITCHELL performs Saturday, Nov. 10, at 8 p.m., in the cabaret series at Japanalia Eiko, 11 Whitney St. Hartford . Tickets: $25, general admission, BYOB; $40, stage-side table with complimentary beverage. Information: http://www.japanalia.com and 860-232-4677.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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