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Fine fusion
No one blends jazz with other music better than Savannah Jazz Festival headliner Spyro Gyra
Saxophonist Jack Beckenstein, second from left, began Spyro Gyra in Buffalo, N.Y. in the mid 1970s.

You could argue that, had it not been for Spyro Gyra, we would not have had to endure Kenny G or any number of “smooth jazz” artists who eventually turned adventuresome music into pabulum for mass consumption.

Conversely, you could argue that Spyro Gyra was instrumental in bringing the worlds of jazz and pop together in wholly positive ways.

Before the New York–based band exploded into the national consciousness with Morning Dance (the song and the album) in 1979, the jazziest thing on the air was Chuck Mangione’s flugelhorn rave–up “Feels So Good.”

Spyro Gyra headlines Saturday’s “Jazzy Picnic in the Park,” the penultimate concert event in the 2010 Savannah Jazz Festival.

Fronted, then as now, by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein, Spyro Gyra proffered an amalgam of jazz, rhythm ‘n’ blues and Caribbean flavors. To this day, Morning Dance and Catching the Sun are among the brightest examples of what could be done with jazz and pop before Kenny, John Tesh, Dave Koz and the rest re–invented it as elevator music.

With more than 10 million in album sales, Spyro Gyra remains a viable recording and touring band. Along with Beckenstein, the 2010 lineup includes pianist Tom Schulman (a member since 1977), bassist Scott Ambush, drummer Bonny Bonaparte and guitarist Julio Fernandez.

We spoke with band founder Beckenstein.

It’s been nearly 40 years for the band. Could you have imagined that all this time later Spyro Gyra would still be going?

Jay Beckenstein: Certainly not at the beginning, I never imagined that this would have been successful at all, let alone have this kind of legs. When we put out our first recording, it was more of a farewell statement to Buffalo, N.Y. than anything else. Because as musicians, the individual members realized that Buffalo wasn’t going to be where we were going to make it. We were young men, we had big hopes, and frankly that meant Los Angeles, Nashville or New York.

My life is far from simple, but I’m not complaining. This is a band that struck the lottery with a radio song, and it opened a door. And we stuck our foot in it big time and kept it there.

In the 1970s, “jazz fusion,” to me, was Weather Report, Mahavishnu and Return to Forever. It all seemed kind of inaccessible from a pop standpoint. But what you did was put melody back into it. Was that a specific notion on your part?

Jay Beckenstein: You know, we had no specific notion. Every musician, to some degree, is a product of his times. You sort of program yourself with a lot of music as you grow up. And then you start to hybridize your own version, if you’re fortunate enough.

And the world we came out of was that world of fusion, with Miles being the god at the top of the mountain. But at the same time, it was Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and Stevie Wonder – and a lot of rhythm ‘n’ blues things that had a lot of melody. When you think of Stevie Wonder, the melodies are glorious.

So if you put Stevie Wonder and Weather Report together, maybe you get Spyro Gyra, I don’t know.

The Caribbean flavors were very cool, too.

Jay Beckenstein: That was another side of it, wasn’t it? Well, that’s New York City. I grew up in New York City and I went up to Buffalo for school, by way of Germany, but when I was a child in New York my dad loved Afro–Cuban music. Salsa was on the radio. And there were lots of Caribbean communities in New York. So that got into my head.

Morning Dance arrived when the Clash, the Police and Elvis Costello were making waves. Disco was dying. Suddenly here’s this pop/jazz instrumental that’s got a cool little groove, and it’s all over the radio. It was also the days of Styx and Kansas. How did you pull that off?

Jay Beckenstein: It’s a testimony to how interesting radio was back then, and to how the ownership of radio stations was not a big corporate thing, where one company owned 300 stations. Where the personalities of the owners and the DJs influenced what got played. And so you had a much broader palette of colors, and opportunities for artists. Whereas now it’s Lady Gaga 24/7.

A lot of artists who arrived in your wake have come and gone, and you’re still out there doing this. What’s the secret to the band’s longevity?

Jay Beckenstein: We’re stubborn! Some of it I’ll pat us on the backs for. I think Spyro Gyra’s always been a good place to be a musician. It wasn’t about “leader and sideman” – if you were in the band, you had a full voice. So, it’s musically satisfying. Nobody left the band because they couldn’t have their say.

And there’s a lot of luck involved. None of the principal members have dealt with illness or ever had a terrible bout with self–inflicted wounds or anything like that.

And if we went out there making unsatisfying recordings, and limp performances, that’s how it really goes away. To last 40 years, you have to play New York 300 times. And if you’re putting on bad shows, it ends around Show Three. So I credit us with going onstage with a lot of enthusiasm, and always trying to make music that’s inspiring to us – and hopefully, because of that, inspiring to an audience.

And always looking at tomorrow as our best day. Not looking back.


Savannah Jazz Festival

Spyro Gyra

Where: Forsyth Park, Drayton Street

When: The band performs at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 25

Admission: Free

“Jazzy Picnic in the Park” full schedule:

3 p.m: Army Signal Corps Swing Band

4:15 p.m.: Eric Mintel Quartet

5:30 p.m.: Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame All–Stars

7 p.m.: Marcus Printup/Joe Gransden w/Savannah Jazz Orchestra

8:15 p.m.: Joe Gransden/Marcus Printup Combo

9:30 p.m. Spyro Gyra