Later this spring, the renowned trumpeter and music educator will be honored in a ‘magical evening’ hosted by the society. Here’s the back story of Sawyer’s lifelong dedication to jazz.
EDITOR’S NOTE: The West Michigan Jazz Society will officially announce its 2023 summer concert series at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (May 3) at SpeakEZ Lounge, where organ-fueled jazz trio Organissimo will perform as part of the Local Spins Wednesdays series. Admission is free.
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When James Sawyer was in the sixth grade, he signed up for band and decided to play the trumpet.
“I brought it home, and I said, ‘Mom, I got the trumpet!’” Sawyer said. “And I pulled it out, and I put the mouthpiece in, and I just started [attempting to play] –– and I said, ‘Oh, Mom, there must be something wrong with it. I think it’s broken!’”
Luckily, his skills improved dramatically from there.
Now, in 2023, Sawyer –– both a veteran performer and an accomplished instructor –– is being honored as the West Michigan Jazz Society’s Musician of the Year.
Sawyer, 69, has been a member of the West Michigan Jazz Society for years. During his time on the board, he was instrumental in connecting local high school jazz programs to events hosted by the society.
“When you try to explain it, it’s hard to explain,” Sawyer said of receiving the Musician of the Year title. He cited past honorees such as singers Edye Evans Hyde and Mary Rademacher, and saxophonist Mel Dalton: “To be in that number [is like] –– OMG! This is great.”
Despite an imperfect start as a youngster, Sawyer continued to play trumpet through high school. In his senior year, he had his first encounter with jazz.
“Back in those days, they didn’t call it jazz band. They called it stage band,” Sawyer said. “From what I understand, stage band was a way of smoothing out the way people thought of jazz.”
Then, Sawyer attended Louisiana’s Grambling College and ultimately earned a bachelor of music education from Chicago’s VanderCook College of Music.
While he was a student, Sawyer played “a lot of rhythm and blues” in night clubs. “When I first went to college, my original goal –– don’t laugh at me –– [was] to be a trumpet player for James Brown,” he said. “That’s why I got into the rhythm and blues scene.”
At the same time, he juggled working at a local music store, where he gave private lessons. There, Sawyer discovered the magic of teaching: that sudden moment “when a student gets it and goes, ‘oh!’”
“The first time you get a kid to say ‘oh’ is like –– yes!” he said. “It was just a great feeling to know you had connected with a kid.”
DEDICATED TO PASSING ON JAZZ MUSIC ‘TO THE YOUNG PEOPLE’
With a passion for both teaching and performing, Sawyer went on to earn a master of music in trumpet performance from the University of Michigan and a doctorate in music education from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Since then, Sawyer has had a long and illustrious career in both areas. As a trumpeter, he’s played with The Temptations, Shirley Jones, The Lawrence Welk All-Stars and The Manhattans. Currently, Sawyer plays in the Grand Rapids Jazz Orchestra and Muskegon’s Truth in Jazz Orchestra, on top of conducting the Holland Concert Jazz Orchestra.
Sawyer also has taught at various schools, including Aquinas College and East Kentwood High School, and jazz camps such as the Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. As an instructor at Grand Valley State University, Sawyer originated a class called Techniques of Jazz Instruction.
“It was an opportunity for me to create something,” he said. “Students freak out when they hear jazz, [but] it’s not difficult. You just have to get them to open up their ears and open up their minds.”
In fact, some of his proudest moments have sprung from his teaching career.
A few years ago, Sawyer conducted the West Michigan Homeschool Fine Arts Association’s jazz band. He fondly recounted taking the band to compete in a local jazz band festival, where they soared to victory. “They went in and they nailed it. It was really fantastic,” Sawyer said. “And we won. I was like, ‘Wow.’ I was shocked.”
For Sawyer, it’s essential that the younger generation knows and appreciates jazz.
“What I’ve been dedicated to doing is passing on this music to the young people as much as I possibly can,” he said. “This is the music that people used to dance to back in the ’20s and ’30s. That was the Beyoncé and the Taylor Swift (at the time). It is really fantastic, just being able to pass on these legendary styles of music and legendary artists.”
On June 1, the West Michigan Jazz Society will celebrate Sawyer’s award in “a magical evening” at the home of Kent and Susan Riddle in Lowell Township. Jazz maven and advocate Eddie Tadlock, assistant general manager of DeVos Place, DeVos Performance Hall and Van Andel Arena, will also be honored that night as “Betty Ford Jazz Ambassador.” Read more about Tadlock at Local Spins here.
Get tickets and details online at wmichjazz.org.
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