VJC Big Band scholarship fundraiser celebrates Nat King Cole’s centennial
Grammy-winning vocalist Peter Eldridge.

VJC Big Band scholarship fundraiser celebrates Nat King Cole’s centennial

BRATTLEBORO — The Vermont Jazz Center's Big Band will present its annual Scholarship Gala on Saturday, Dec. 7, at 8 p.m. This year's celebration will honor the centennial of Nat King Cole's birth.

The VJC Big Band, under the leadership of musical director Rob Freeberg, is a community orchestra of professional musicians who come together once a year to raise money for the VJC's Scholarship Fund.

This event is the primary funding source for scholarship students attending VJC's educational programs. In 2019, the VJC offered $30,000 in scholarships to help students attend ensembles, private lessons, and the annual summer jazz workshop.

This year's gala will feature the arrangements of songs made famous by Nat “King” Cole, who was recognized as “one of the most influential entertainers of the 20th century” by National Public Radio. The Grammy Hall of Fame member was a superstar of his time: he recorded more than 150 Billboard singles and sold more than 50 million records.

Cole knew he was destined for a life of music - he dropped out of high school at the age of 15 to tour as pianist in his brother Eddie's trio and never looked back.

Influential pianist

Cole's vocal prowess has perhaps eclipsed his extraordinary achievements as a pianist, but his contributions on the piano indelibly influenced other piano giants at the highest level.

The legendary pianist Oscar Peterson, quoted in the liner notes of one of Cole's albums, said: “Nat's at the very top … He belongs in the same company with the pianists he idolized - Earl Hines and Art Tatum. They were magicians, but he had something more than magic; he had restraint … Every one of us who followed him, from Bud Powell to Bill Evans, has been deeply influenced by his relaxed sense of melody and especially his rhythmic genius.”

Cole started recording in 1940 at the age of 21. In 1944, he was chosen by jazz impresario Norman Granz to appear as pianist in his first Jazz at the Philharmonic tour along with Illinois Jacquet, J.J. Johnson, and Les Paul.

In 1946, Cole became the first African American to host his own syndicated radio program. Ten years later, in 1956, he went on to become the first African American to host a weekly television variety show.

Guests on his show included Harry Belafonte, Tony Bennet, Ella Fitzgerald, Peggy Lee, and Mel Tormé. As a performer, Cole went on to win a Grammy and release dozens of recordings, including three Spanish-language albums that were extremely popular throughout Latin America.

Cole endured a lifetime of racist conflicts that included run-ins with the KKK and an onstage assault in Birmingham, Ala. He found it challenging to balance his role as an entertainer playing in an integrated band for a racially-segregated society. He was constantly searching for ways to support the African American cause while still catering to a diverse audience.

He enjoyed enduring relations with important figures throughout the social strata including a wide array of musicians and politicians. As an indication of his prominence in society, after his death of lung cancer in 1965 at age 45, his honorary pallbearers included Robert F. Kennedy, Frank Sinatra, Count Basie, Johnny Mathis, and Sammy Davis Jr., and Jack Benny delivered his eulogy.

Lasting legacy

Cole's lasting legacy is assured thanks to the hundreds of beloved recordings he released including “Mona Lisa,” “Unforgettable,” “L-O-V-E,” “The Christmas Song,” “Route 66,” “Nature Boy,” and “Sweet Loraine.”

Singing Cole's repertoire on Saturday, Dec. 7, will be two-time Grammy Award winning vocalist Peter Eldridge. Eldridge has released five critically acclaimed albums under his own name, but also plays a prominent role on recordings led by Bob Mintzer, Ann Hampton Callaway, Janis Siegel, Jane Monheit, Kevin Mahogany, Nancy Wilson, Don Sebesky, Bernadette Peters, Judy Niemack, Amy London, and others.

Eldridge is a founding member of the internationally acclaimed vocal group New York Voices (NYV). The group continues to tour steadily and has performed in some of the world's most preeminent venues and festivals, including Carnegie Hall, Avery Fisher Hall, and the Kennedy Center.

NYV has been involved in two Grammy-award winning projects with Paquito D'Rivera and the Count Basie Orchestra. New York Voices completed two new collaborative albums, the recently-released 'Meeting of Minds' with the Bob Mintzer Big Band, and the other with legendary Brazilian singer/songwriter Ivan Lins and the Danish Radio Big Band.

On the more contemporary side, Eldridge is also a member of the vocal group MOSS, alongside Kate McGarry, Theo Bleckmann, Lauren Kinhan and Luciana Souza (and now, Jo Lawry). Some of Eldridge's notable performance collaborations include projects with Bobby McFerrin, Fred Hersch, Becca Stevens, George Benson, Michael Brecker, David Byrne, Jonatha Brooke, Kurt Elling, the New West Guitar Trio, the Swingles, Anat Cohen, Karrin Allison, Paula Cole, Jon Hendricks, and Mark Murphy.

As an educator, Eldridge was head of the Manhattan School of Music's jazz voice department for 18 years and is Professor of Voice at Berklee College of Music in Boston. All About Jazz has said “[he] is the true voice of understanding, speaking on its own terms while also capturing and expressing the emotions that we all feel.”

Accomplished director

The VJC Big Band is fortunate to have board member Rob Freeberg as its musical director. Freeberg moved to Dummerston in 2012 after retiring from his position as director of bands at New Rochelle High School, N.Y,, where he taught for 30 years. He also directed the Rob Freeberg Big Band and the Iona College Pep Band.

Freeberg was selected as guest conductor for several all-county and regional music festivals in New York, including performances at Lincoln Center. Along with his numerous offerings at the Vermont Jazz Center, Freeberg performs with the Windham Orchestra and its brass quintet, and the chamber orchestras accompanying the Bennington County Choral Society and Keene Chorale.

The VJC Big Band was originally a collaborative project initiated by former VJC board president Howard Brofsky and VJC board member Sherm Fox. This year, the big band celebrates 17 years of performances thanks in great part to Fox's continued persistence and organizational efforts as Band Manager.

The performers of the VJC Big Band include trumpeters Don Anderson, Rick Anderson, Haneef Nelson, Dave Dell and Rob Freeberg; woodwind players Michael Zsoldos, Sherm Fox, Bob Stabach, Larry Tutt and Nick Pelton; trombonists John Wheeler, Bob Thies, Dave Sporny and Caroline Cole; and rhythm section members Eugene Uman (piano), George Kaye (bass), and Steve Rice (drums).

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