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Jazz fest comes to U. City, Silverman style

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 22, 2011 - Michael Silverman and his brother Rob were born and raised in University City, and grew up in a musical environment that played a major role in shaping their careers as professional musicians. Their father played cello in the St. Louis Symphony orchestra for more than 40 years, and their mother -- who also studied cello -- taught piano in University City for many years.

Today, the Silverman brothers are members of the Classical Jazz Quartet, also previously known as Bach to the Future. As both group names indicate, a listener can expect a unique sound that starts with a foundation of classical compositions -- then incorporates elements of jazz, new age and world music styles into the musical mix.

The Classical Jazz Quartet defines this musical approach as "Beethoven meets Coltrane meets Debussy, meets Sanborn" on its Facebook page. And it's one that has definitely succeeded -- especially on the Internet. Over the course of six years -- and the release of more than a dozen recordings under the band names or as solo projects by Michael Silverman -- 11 releases reached number one on Internet sales charts such as iTunes. And total Internet sales of songs have totaled more than 3 million song downloads.

According to the Silverman Brothers, whom I caught up with for lunch recently, the eclectic musical approach that has succeeded for them has its roots in University City: a combination of being raised in a home where classical music was prevalent and the diverse cultural background they discovered in the U. City Loop.

"Our folks had classical music going all the time in the house -- live and on recordings," recalls Michael. "And I can still remember hanging out in the Loop at Streetside Records and Vintage Vinyl, hearing new music. And I also remember hearing everything from jazz and reggae to rock at the clubs there. Bands like Tracer and Oasis and musicians like Ptah Williams, Gary Sykes and Daryl Mixon really were a big influence."

The Silverman Brothers soon formed a fusion-jazz band called the Downtown Trio, and released a debut CD, "U. City Blues," in 2003. The other member of the group, bassist Matt Bollinger, stuck around, and the band expanded to a quartet with the addition of violinist Andrew Driscoll.

"I actually had the idea of doing a version of Bach's 'Cello Suites,'" recalls Michael. "That's when we asked Andrew to join the group. Pretty soon, we had enough material for an album, and it was all music that came from Bach. So the name, "Bach to the Future"' seemed like a natural, because it played off the popularity of the 'Back to the Future' series of movies."

Soon the band started getting bookings -- both in St. Louis and out of town. The appeal of taking classical music and rearranging it with a focus on contemporary jazz, pop and world music styles clearly had a wide appeal. And to make sure that fans took the band's musical liberties with the classics repertoire without offense, the band developed a tight live concert presentation that incorporated plenty of humor.

"We decided that, since we basically had an instrumental show, we'd break it up by using humor," says Rob Silverman. "We portrayed ourselves as sort of classical rebels -- using that to bring the audience in on the joke of having fun with serious music."

Internet sales boomed, and one of the first big hits there was Michael's own recording, "Christmas Piano." For Michael, there was an easy explanation for the music's appeal.

"It's really music that people actually want to hear," he explains. "Obviously, there's a lot of holiday music out there, but I realized I couldn't find just simple piano versions of perennial favorites that people love. So that basic approach is something we've followed on subsequent recordings -- giving people what they want to hear and can't find in appealing, well-crafted versions."

Although Bach to the Future had gained quite a following, the Silvermans decided recently it was time to change the name of the band. So they picked Classical Jazz Quartet as a way to more clearly define the changing focus of the music.

"We really wanted to appeal more to a jazz audience," says Michael. "And we were also doing more original music, so it made sense to give a broader focus to what we doing than just Bach. And Bach to the Future was more of a zany group with synthesizers. Classical jazz Quartet is more piano-based."

"Besides, a lot of people seemed to have forgotten the 'Back To the Future' movies,'"adds Rob. "So not many people get the joke anymore."

A new group name is not the only new direction for the Silvermans. They have also started their own record label -- Autumn Hill. And they've also set up their own event production company -- Silverman Music Productions. Both new enterprises are tied to the debut of the University City Jazz festival this Saturday, Sept. 24, at Heman Park. In addition to coming up with the idea for the event and working to make it happen, the Silvermans have signed one of the festival performers, drummer Maurice Carnes, to the Autumn Hill label.

According to Michael, the idea for the U. City Jazz Festival popped into his head one night, but also went back to his early years growing up in that town -- and the other young musicians who also came out of the area.

"When I think back on it, I can recall other U. City kids like Jeremy Davenport, Peter Martin, Todd Williams, Chris Thomas, Neal Caine and David Berger all being around before they went on to bigger things," recalls Michael. "Then I had an inspiration in the middle of the night about a jazz fest in U. City. I e-mailed the mayor the next day, and she was very excited about the possibility. This was back in April, and that's really not a lot of time to put together a festival in September -- especially when you're dealing with a city government."

Using their own production company as a starting point, the Silvermans began to work to get other sponsors involved, booking a lineup for the fest and lining up food booths at Heman Park.

"A lot of people from a lot of organizations got involved. For example, WSIE radio at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville and The Riverfront Times both stepped up to help promote the event. And we also got KWMU and 96.3 involved for radio, HEC-TV and companies like Vintage Vinyl and Blueberry Hill, too."

In addition to featuring the Classical Jazz Quartet, the festival's music lineup includes Maurice Carnes paying tribute to the music of John Coltrane, Clave Sol, a group of young student musicians called the U. City All Star Players, plus legendary area vocalist Jeanne Trevor as the headliner.

According to Michael, the booking approach will serve as a template for future jazz festivals.

"We've got a long term strategy in place, and the lineup for the first year reflects that plan. We'll have Maurice Carnes doing a tribute to the music created by a legendary musician every year, and we also want to eventually feature musicians like Jeremy Davenport and Peter Martin, who came from U. City and are now nationally known. And we also want to make sure we feature up-and-coming young musicians as well -- hopefully having them compete for as place on the schedule."

The fest will kick off at 11 am with a Jazz Clinic featuring Washington University Director of jazz Studies William Lenihan, as well as Kara Baldus and Maurice Carnes.

"We want to honor the jazz heritage of U. City with this event," says Michael. "But we also want that tradition to continue -- just like we hope the Fest will become an annual event."

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer who often covers music. 

Terry Perkins is a freelance writer based in St. Louis. He has written for the St. Louis Beacon since 2009. Terry's other writing credits in St. Louis include: the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, the St. Louis American, the Riverfront Times, and St. Louis magazine. Nationally, Terry writes for DownBeat magazine, OxfordAmerican.org and RollingStone.com, among others.

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