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Trumpeter James Suggs and friends return with ‘live’ jazz

Bill DeYoung

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James Suggs has been a part of the bay area jazz scene since 2014. Photo: Jeremiah Khokhar

After a last gig on March 16 – a wedding reception in Belleair Beach – James Suggs was one more musician whose momentum was stopped dead in its tracks by Covid-19.

“I’ve been playing professionally since I was about 16,” the jazz trumpeter reports. “So this was like the first time since then that I was ‘All right, take a break, relax, stay at home with your wife.’ The first two weeks, I was so happy.”

After that … not so happy.

Music, Suggs explains, “is how we breathe, it’s how we live … I had a point where I felt like I couldn’t validate myself. I had no way of saying ‘No, this is me. I swear I can do this.’ There was no way of going out and proving ‘I am a musician.’”

Suggs has an impressive professional resume, including soloist stints in the contemporary Glenn Miller and Tommy Dorsey orchestras, and a Masters in Music from the University of South Florida. He teaches and directs several ensembles at USF.

But he’s also a composer, a recording artist and, at his core, a musical collaborator.

He declined to perform virtually during the darkest, most isolated days of the pandemic, he explains.

“I understood why a lot of musicians did that, and are doing that still,” he says. “But I wanted to play live, because that’s my passion. I love what I do, and that’s why I chose to do it.”

Thursday night, Suggs is back – in a manner of speaking. Along with saxophonist Jeremy Carter and the trio called La Lucha (John O’Leary, piano; Alejandro Arenjas, standup bass; Mark Feinman, drums) he’s featured in a “livestreamed” 8 p.m. concert. It’s the first in the Palladium Live series, through mypalladium.org.

The concert will be available for 48 hours.

Onstage at the Palladium: O’Leary, left, Arenas, Suggs, Carter and Feinman. Palladium Theater photo

The Suggs quintet was professionally filmed and recorded, in full concert mode, inside the Palladium Theater’s Hough Hall last month. Without an audience.

When asked about the experience, Suggs paraphrased Duke Ellington: “There are three essential parts of creating music – the composer, the performer and the listener. Take out one of those components, it’s kind of not what it’s supposed to be.”

Still, it was great fun, and musically rewarding. “I got to play with some of my closest friends, musicians that I completely trust on and off the stage,” Suggs says. “But it was weird getting back together and saying ‘Hey, but I can’t give you a hug, keep your distance and this and that.’

“Of course, we’re used to hearing occasional applause – hopefully more than occasional – but we’re so happy every chance we get to play with other people in a live setting, we kind of forgot about the lack of audience.”

In the end, he says, “We were able to say yes, we would love to have a live audience here, but right now, we really need this.”

The Pennsylvania native arrived in St. Petersburg in 2014, after eight years in Buenos Aires, Argentina.

He and his wife were thinking of relocating to New York, or Chicago – or maybe Floridian centers of jazz like Miami or Tampa. “My sister had moved to St. Pete,” he recalls. “I was hanging out with her and her husband and I realized ‘This is the place where it’s all going on.’”

He met guitarist Nate Najar, who introduced him to legendary bassman John Lamb (a former member of Duke Ellington’s orchestra) and trombone great Buster Cooper, who passed away in 2016.

Then he played with Carter, La Lucha, and dozens more. His Miles Davis tribute concerts at the Palladium Side Door are always sold out.

“Not only are there great young musicians here, but also this rich legacy of veteran musicians are here, or have ended up here,” Suggs enthuses. “It’s just such a great mixing of every type of musician and walk of life.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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