MIDDLEBURY — Vermont may not be much of a hotbed for jazz culture, but saxophonist and trumpeter Miles Donahue hopes to change that. His annual concerts at Middlebury College’s Mahaney Center for the Arts for the past nine years have brought talented musicians from the United States and beyond.
He’s at it again this Friday evening, when the Miles Donahue Quintet will play a variety of jazz standards and originals. The Middlebury resident is looking for a big turnout.
“Jazz is something that needs to be experienced in person,” he said in an interview with the Independent. “To see the empathy musicians have for each other and the improvisation is truly happening at that moment.”
Donahue’s introduction to the world of jazz began at the age of 10 when he began learning trumpet like his father, who was also a musician. Young Miles developed a taste for the music and began listening to jazz records by Clifford Brown and Miles Davis. Then, in the eighth grade, he met Jerry Bergonzi, a now-renowned tenor saxophonist.
“We discovered music together,” Donahue said of Bergonzi, who now travels the world teaching and performing. “And once a year for the last four years I bring him up here to get together and play music as we did when we were kids.”
Donahue stuck with the trumpet, and while attending Lowell State College he also developed proficiency in saxophone and keyboard. He has since released 12 records and earned critical acclaim from experts like Grammy-award winner and Boston Globe jazz critic Bob Blumenthal, who called Donahue a “jazz treasure.”
“Miles Donahue is one of the best-kept jazz secrets,” Blumenthal has written.
In addition to teaching lessons at Middlebury College, where he is an affiliated artist, Donahue also plays jazz music in the style of Motown with a larger ensemble at weddings and corporate events. His quintet, he says, has a bebop style and focuses more on improvisation. The group performs entirely without sheet music and can take some unexpected turns as performers trade solos.
“Jazz music is 95 percent improvising,” said Donahue, who will turn 70 this summer. “Everyone will be improvising and this is the odd side of my musical career. My life is all about music and this is where I get to perform the music that I’ve spent 60 years trying to get good at.”
Donahue’s quintet brings four musicians from locations in the Northeast, in addition to the band leader.
• Donahue’s old friend Jerry Bergonzi has toured all around the world for more three decades, including performances at Carnegie Hall and Lincoln Center in New York City, the Sydney Opera House in Australia, Royal Festival Hall in London and the Hollywood Bowl. He has performed and toured with jazz luminaries Dave Brubeck, Mike Stern, Joey Calderazzo, Bill Evans, the National Jazz Ensemble, and many more. He teaches at the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston.
• Pianist Alain Mallet arrived at renowned Berklee College of Music when he was just 18. His career highlights include performances with Phil Woods, Paul Simon, Paquito D’Rivera, Marc Johnson, and Madeleine Peyroux. He currently records and performs with Boston-based jam band sensation Club D’Elf, saxophonist Andy Snitzer, and the Caribbean Jazz Project. He teaches as an associate professor at Berklee in Boston.
• Drummer Ralph Peterson Jr. is professor of percussion at Berklee and apprenticed under many jazz greats, including Art Blakey, Betty Carter, Elvin Jones and Walter Davis. He has performed with Michael Brecker, Carmen Lundy, the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Don Byron, Don Braden, Walter Davis Jr., Jon Faddis, Terrence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis, Stanley Turrentine, David Murray, the Count Basie Orchestra, Sean Jones, Ravi Coltrane and Tia Fuller. He has more than a dozen recordings to his name, and is president, CEO and owner of Onyx Productions/Music Label.
• Like Mallet, bassist John Lockwood was also a student at Berklee before becoming a faculty member. His career highlights include performances with Gary Burton, Dance Umbrella, Donal Fox, the Fringe, Eddie Harris, Johnny Hartman, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard, Dave Liebman, Joe Maneri, Tate Montolia, Makoto Ozone, Joe Pass, Danilo Perez, Pharoah Sanders, Carol Sloane, Clark Terry, Kenny Werner, James Williams and others.
Since moving to Middlebury, Donahue says his yearly concerts focus on promoting interest in jazz. Every year he gives away CDs in the hope that audience members will take an interest not just in his own music, but also in the genre as a whole. Last year’s complimentary CD was entirely jazz standards, and while Middlebury doesn’t have the venues and resources of the Boston jazz scene he left nine years ago, he says he’s found a community that’s supportive of his music.
The experience of live, improvised jazz, he says, will hopefully be one of a kind.
“It can be an exciting thing for people to expose themselves to,” he said.
The Miles Donahue Quintet will perform on Friday, May 2, at 8 p.m. in the Concert Hall of the Kevin P. Mahaney ’84 Center for the Arts.