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Published April 21, 2020
This is the time of year when University of Wyoming jazz studies instructor Ben Markley begins to think about upcoming sessions with his group or solo events around the region -- a chance to play in front of intimate, live audiences.
But, as with everything else, the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic has put a screeching halt to all social gatherings. And, it really has hit Markley, as an artist, hard.
“For the first two weeks of the pandemic, I was depressed. I felt like I didn't have a lot of options to express myself artistically,” he says. “And, even more so, I was so sad for all of my artist friends all over the country who were out of work with no relief in sight.”
Markley has decided to do something to not only help his own mental health, but also to give back to the artistic community.
Recently, Markley, a jazz pianist, took one of his original tunes, “’Mon Back,” from a previous recording from his latest album, “Slow Play,” that was intended for his quartet. He adapted “’Mon Back” -- abbreviated for “Come on Back” -- and arranged the tune for a big-band instrumentation featuring 16 different musicians from across the nation.
That inspiration led the Ben Markley Big Band to play different instruments on Markley’s original tune -- all recorded from the band members’ home bases. The compilation was then turned into a YouTube video, showcasing all 16 musicians in unison playing the catchy piece. Their performance can be found on YouTube here.
“I saw a couple of groups do something similar to this, and I started the process to put this all together,” says Markley, UW Department of Music jazz studies director.
His efforts helped bring back much-needed camaraderie with his fellow musicians but, more important for Markley, provided a way to help artists in need during the pandemic.
He has selected two organizations to help artists at www.artistrelief.org, for national musicians, and for the Wyoming Arts Alliance at www.wyomingarts.org/donate-to-the-individual-artist-covid-19-support-grant/.
Participants can apply for grants with money raised through individual pledges. Markley is donating 100 percent of the proceeds from his digital album sales from his personal website at www.benmarkleymusic.com.
The seven-minute “’Mon Back” resonates what is happening in today’s world, a song of hope as the United States and the world try to overcome the pandemic in an attempt for ordinary everyday life. The tune asks for music, reason, trust, health, safety, love, jobs, sports, summer and relief to come back -- and offers hope for leadership, money for those in need and belief that people will be joined together once again.
“I just wanted to create something that puts some good in the world and raises awareness and funds for artists who need it,” Markley says.
Markley has branched out to the big-band sound and formed his own group five years ago, noting legendary musicians such as Count Basie and Thad Jones as two of his biggest influences. At UW, he teaches jazz improvisation, jazz combo, jazz ensemble, applied lessons and jazz history. He plays regularly along the Front Range and weekly at Ace Gillett's in Fort Collins, Colo.
“I am a big believer in a team, and a big band is a great representation of everyone working together, doing their job to create something,” he says.
The artists he reached out to for the recording of “’Mon Back” are all his friends -- musicians whom he has met at various stages in his career.
“I've played music with all of them. Some I've worked with at other institutions, and there also are a couple I went to school with several years ago,” he says.
During this time of uncertainty around the world, Markley is joining others who want to help.
“We all know it's true that music and all art sustain, fulfill and inspire us during good times and bad,” he says. “It is important that we remember to support artists who are alive and creating this work -- especially in times of need. Since I have lived in a lot of places, I wanted to help the place I call home now as well as the entire nation.”
Members of the Ben Markley Big Band are Clint Ashlock, Kansas City, Kan., artistic director of the Kansas City Jazz Orchestra; Adam Bartzcak and Shane Endsley, both from Denver, Colo., and Sam Williams, Boulder, Colo., all independent artists and adjunct instructors at Metro State; Rob Borger, Fort Collins, Colo., high school band teacher; Melissa Gardiner, Syracuse, N.Y., independent artist; and Jon Gauer, Denver, Colo., independent artist.
Other members are Evan Gregor, John Lake and Chris Smith, New York City independent artists; Dan Jonas, Ogden, Utah, director of jazz studies at Weber State University; Serafin Sanchez, Denver, Colo., independent artist; Scott Turpen, UW Department of Music chair; and Peter Sommer, professor of saxophone, and Wil Swindler, Thornton, Colo., director of jazz studies, both at Colorado State University.