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By RAEGAN MILLER
Daily News Staff Writer
While Ketchikan has no shortage of both seasoned and aspiring musicians, the annual First City Players “Jazz and Cabaret” event offers new opportunities and fresh perspectives by introducing out-of-town musical talent and instruction.
As part of the annual event, four professional musicians are visiting Ketchikan for two weeks of workshops on singing, performing and playing instruments with interested local musicians.
The program will culminate with two gala performances.
The 2020 Jazz and Cabaret galas will be held at 7 p.m. on Friday and Jan. 18 at the Ted Ferry Civic Center. There will be an additional family show at 2 p.m. on Jan. 19.
The Jazz and Cabaret event has been a First City staple for over a decade.
“This whole project started really not as what it grew into,” First City Players Executive Artistic Director Elizabeth Nelson told the Daily News.
Nelson said she began the Jazz and Cabaret event after being inspired in the early 1990s by an acquaintance from New York.
Over several years, Nelson’s acquaintance had hosted various wintertime music and vocal workshops in Juneau and Fairbanks. At his invitation, Nelson attended a workshop in Juneau.
“It was really fun — you’d sing a song and this good piano player would accompany you, and you had a week to just hang out with a bunch of other people who liked to sing sort of Great American Songbook standards,” Nelson said about the experience. “And it was so much fun that I invited (him) to come here, and he did, for two or three years.”
After the trips to Ketchikan ended, Nelson continued to think about reviving the event.
“I went up to the Summer Arts Festival in Fairbanks one summer and did a cabaret workshop that was a blast,” Nelson said. “And through that (I) started thinking, ‘Oh, I should start making something happen again.’ So I was looking for people who had the skills and the time to come in and work with some local singers.”
Nelson began searching for the right musicians and first came across Anne Phillips in 1999.
Nelson described Phillips as having an “incredibly rich history” in music.
According to a biography of Phillips provided by to the Daily News by FCP, “in addition to recording an album of her own, ‘Born to be Blue,’ she worked as a signer and choral arranger/conductor with many of the music world’s leading artists, from Carol King and Mahalia Jackson to Sammy Davis Jr., George Jones and Neil Diamond.”
Soon after Phillips took on her role as a guest instructor in the still-developing workshops, Nelson began to receive recommendations for more musicians to invite to the First City.
“It just kept growing into more and more people coming in,” Nelson said.
Nelson noted that, on average, five professional musicians come to visit Ketchikan for the event. Often, the same musicians make the trip each year. One of the regularly scheduled guests, jazz guitarist Paul Meyers, was unable to make the trip this year.
In the absence of Meyers, there will be four guest musicians and instructors for the 2020 Jazz and Cabaret.
Jazz bassist Christian Fabian will arrive in the First City next week and begin work with the Ketchikan High School and Schoenbar Middle School jazz bands.
Fabian was born in Sweden and moved to Germany before studying at the Maastricht Conservatory in the Netherlands, stated the FCP information. He eventually relocated to the U.S. and studied at the Berklee College of Music. Fabian was an instructor at the Sitka Fine Arts Camp for 13 years.
Fabian told the Daily News that he has been visiting Ketchikan to participate in the annual event for six or seven years, after being recommended by local musician Austin Hays.
“It’s refreshing to have all the talent in Ketchikan,” Fabian said.
Matt King makes a living as a freelancing pianist, Hammond organist, vocalist and private music theory teacher, according to FCP.
King has performed on The Today Show and Good Morning America, and at events such as Holland’s North Sea Jazz Festival, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, and the Montreal Jazz Festival. He currently works as a musical director and keyboardist for guitarist Chuck Loeb.
King has been a guest instructor for Jazz and Cabaret for six years.
“I got called by Christian Fabian. … He recommended me to Elizabeth Nelson at the theater,” King explained, joking that “apparently” Nelson and the musicians of Ketchikan liked him enough to have him come back over the years.
“I like the scenery, with the people being a close second,” King said of the First City.
Nicki Denner is a pianist and composer who has performed across the U.S., Asia and Europe. Denner has released three albums and has composed music for award-winning films and the New Jersey Tap Ensemble.
“As well as having a private teaching studio, she has served on the piano faculty of the Stanford University Summer Jazz Workshop, the Montclair State University Jazz Prep Summer Program, the New York City Tap Festival, the New Jersey Tap Festival and is also a contributor to Keyboard Magazine,” the FCP information read.
Denner currently works as the musical director for the music group Cocomama.
Alongside King, Denner will take the lead on hosting workshops for the performers. Denner and King began working with musicians on Monday and will continue to coach participants throughout next week.
The six workshops cover a broad range of performance-related topics.
“I keep having to stress that it’s not just jazz — that’s why we call it ‘jazz and cabaret,’ because we want it to be a broader spectrum of music,” Nelson said.
Denner has been instructing beginners in the “From Shower to Stage” workshop, where participants are encouraged to “reach beyond the showerhead for a microphone.”
She is also the instructor for the “Just Jazz” workshop, where she helps solo musicians “learn how to integrate yourself as a vocalist with the band;” and the “Kitchen Sink” workshop, a multi-style group event.
According to the FCP information, King will be instructing the “Anything Goes” workshop for experienced singers to “interpret or even re-imagine” a song. He also will lead the “Great American Songbook” workshop, where participants will sing “long-beloved songs from the pantheon of revered American singers and songwriters.”
King will also lead a workshop called “Safety in Numbers,” for duet or group performances.
Denner and King will also work together in assisting participants during the workshops.
“It’s very sweet, and it’s really exciting to just watch people blossom and learn and just do better than they thought they could do,” Nelson said of the workshop series.
Jazz and Cabaret isn’t just for adults — students of all ages also benefit from the four musicians’ instruction.
Fabian and Phillips will work with elementary, middle and high school students and offer private lessons, as well as provide musical accompaniment and assistance during the workshops.
Phillips has introduced the program “Kindred Spirits” to Ketchikan schools and Fast Track students after seeing success with the initiative in New York schools.
“She would just teach them these great songs and they’d learn a lot about melodies and harmonics and rhythm,” Nelson said of the New York program. “And so she’s doing that here in Ketchikan.”
The songs that Phillips teaches to students are culled from the Great American Songbook.
“These songs are so familiar, they’re just part of our culture, part of what we know — you’d hear them in Broadway musicals, you’d hear them in movies, or in film, they were the popular songs on the radio,” Nelson explained. “So they’re really, really a part of being an American music experience.”
The students will then have the chance to perform what they learned during the family show on Sunday.
Fabian recalls visiting “five to six” schools every year he has visited to Ketchikan. He often will play with or perform for the students in the middle and high school jazz bands.
“It’s always a very enriching moment,” Fabian said about working with kids in the schools. “We also work with the music teachers and give them pointers or inspiration.”
Nelson highlighted that the Jazz and Cabaret event offers students the chance to work with working musicians.
“The people we bring in, this is what they do for a living,” Nelson said. “They do everything (from) playing weddings to touring with people you would know to having their own solo albums … they’re really stellar, amazing musicians and we’re really lucky they’re willing to come to this little island in Alaska in the middle of winter and spend a couple of weeks sharing their knowledge and talent with us.”