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Purple Velvet Fox: Kings (and Queen) of Swing

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By Johnny Griffith

Jazz. All that jazz. Jazz hands. DJ Jazzy Jeff. Jazzed up. If you ask a statistically significant number of people in this area, the previous phrases will probably exhaust their personal encyclopedic knowledge of the genre. They might be able to name a few performers over the years which you had to have been living under a rock (or a pine tree) to not recognize like Armstrong, Miles, Brubeck, Coltrane, and Ella; beyond that and it gets sketchy. There isn’t the knowledge of the complexity, spontaneity, and democracy within the music because you really have to experience jazz live and in person to gain a better understanding of the music and the musicians who play it, and unfortunately, there hasn’t historically been a plethora of opportunities in the area.

Fortunately for East Texans, the genre is experiencing a growth trend locally and the movement is being led by the collective known as Purple Velvet Fox (PVF).

PVF is comprised of core members Sarah Roberts on alto and soprano sax, Alex Blair on bass, Joe Snider on percussion, and founder and band leader Gary C. Hatcher on guitar while often performing with guests on various instruments. One of the most acclaimed local acts, they’ve taken home the award for Best Jazz Band in East Texas on three different occasions and routinely play shows all over the region in their attempt to play great music while educating people along the way.

Professionals in every sense of the word, the “core four” have the credentials to step on stage with the most seasoned musical veterans and have accumulated an amazing amount of knowledge in one band. Hatcher holds a Master of Fine Arts from the University of North Texas and is a Professor of Art at UT Tyler and the B.J. and Dub Riter Professorship in Art. Alex Blair plays 4, 5, and 6 string electric bass, fretted and fretless, is thirty-five years into an ever expanding dynamic music career that includes 

teaching, composition, live and studio performance, music audio production, and recording studio owner of WindWord Studio in Tyler. Dr. Sarah Roberts keeps a very active teaching and performance schedule as Professor of Music, Jazz Studies, and Saxophone at UT Tyler and holds a Doctor of Musical Arts in Saxophone Performance from the University of North Texas. Finally, Joe Snider is a lifelong percussionist and graduate of UT Tyler where he holds a Bachelor of Music degree in percussion and performance. A sought after performer, teacher, and clinician, he supports himself as a full-time musician. On Sundays he is the percussionist at Green Acres Baptist Church in their Contemporary Service and in addition to performing regularly in Purple Velvet Fox, he plays in the Dallas-based indie band, Metrograde.

I caught up with Gary this month to get some more insight on Purple Velvet Fox and how they’re changing the local music scene in East Texas.

Johnny: So who came up with the idea to start a jazz band, and when did that original brainstorm happen?

Gary: Over the last decade it has been apparent that jazz is a growing genre in East Texas with an increasing interest among both young and old. Baby boomers who grew up on rock are finding the more complex and sophisticated sounds of jazz compelling. Gen X and Millennials as well are being drawn to jazz as much contemporary music has roots in the complex modal harmonies and structure established in jazz. In the various iterations and membership of Purple Velvet Fox over the last decade, we have had members as young as 20 up to baby boomers such as myself. Most of the musicians who play jazz are also in other bands as well that play other genres of music. So I started PVF as a desire to hear and play jazz as it has increased in popularity.

Johnny: Who were the original members?

Gary: Original members of PVF were myself, Gary Hatcher on guitar, Jacob Wellman on sax, Joe Snyder on drums, Suzie Carter with vocals, and Eric Pardoe on bass. Joe Snyder is the only member who is still in the band that began with the band many years ago. Jacob Wellman was in the band until last year when he moved to Big D, and Suzie Carter performs with the band occasionally. People move, ambitions change, life evolves and moves on, so we have had probably a dozen or so different members in the past years. Of course, we always have other musicians come and sit in with the band. Trumpet, congas, flute, trombone, we even had a great spoon player sit in with us one night. That was really cool until he laid his special set of spoons on the table and the bus boy picked them up and took them to the kitchen. Poor guy spent about an hour digging through trash in the kitchen!

Johnny: Where did the name Purple Velvet Fox come from, and how tough of a sell was that to the rest of the band?

Gary: The first jazz band I formed was called Off Season Jazz, and we were looking for a name that did several things. First, we wanted something a bit exotic, something that said smooth, something iconic that sparked people’s imagination. As a friend once commented, what could be cooler and more exotic than a “Purple Velvet Fox.”

It wasn’t a tough sell at all. Sometimes people look at us a little funny, but they remember the band and the name.

Johnny: When and where was the first PVF gig?

Gary: Wow, we have played literally hundreds of gigs over the last six years although I am pretty sure our first gig together was in Athens at Tara Winery, six, maybe seven years ago.

Johnny: So there are a few jazz projects playing in and around the Tyler area, but this is still a region dominated by country and rock. How challenging has it been to find decent gigs around?

Gary: We have had very little trouble booking gigs, and I think that is for several reasons. First, we have some of the best musicians in this part of the country playing with the band. Second, we are organized, professional and have a reputation for putting on a great show. Third, the venues expecting exceptional, quality music is growing. We have played at most of the wineries in East Texas as well as restaurants, festivals, and clubs. And we play weddings and parties as well. We play most venues that do not necessarily want country or rock.

Johnny: How has the reception been locally for what you guys are doing?

Gary: We have a growing and steady following. Those who appreciate jazz, seek us out and watch our calendar on Reverbnation.com and come to our performance because they know they are going to hear a first-rate jazz band.

Johnny: How often do you play out of this area, and what kind of success have you found outside the local audience?

Gary: We play primarily in the East Texas area 3-6 times per month. Although we all approach the band as professional musicians, we all have other jobs or commitments that limit how many performances we want to do. Same for venues further away. We have played in Dallas, Shreveport, Houston, and Austin but don’t cultivate areas that far away since it usually involves a two-day commitment due to the distance. We could go on tour, but then as I mentioned, our other interests would have to be changed and significantly adjusted.

Johnny: What have been some of the other challenges you’ve faced along the way?

Gary: When you have a band with 4-6 members, coordinating schedules is always a challenge as we all play in other bands and have other interests, and then we are invited to play and at times it is hard to get all the core members together for the date requested. For that reason, there are always the core members, currently Alex Blair bass, Joe Snyder drums, Sarah Roberts, and then I have other great musicians that I invite to sub. So scheduling is the biggest challenge.

Johnny: What are some of the influences of the band stylistically?

Gary: We all enjoy and play the jazz classics from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver, and many more, but then we have other sounds, bands, and genres that inspire us. For me, I listen to bands such as Galactic, EST, Gov’t Mule, Medeski Martin & Wood, Al Dimeola, and many more. Of course, I am also influenced by classical music and play classical piano in addition to jazz guitar. The piano works of Chopin, Beethoven, Mozart, and Bach are beautiful and inspiring in their own way. Bach was really the father of contemporary harmony, so we all owe a lot to J.S. Bach. If you asked each band member you would get a pretty diverse list I am sure.

Johnny: Does PVF do more recognizable jazz songs to get people engaged, or do you rearrange other genre music to fit your format in order to engage audiences that are less familiar with the classics?

Gary: Our set lists are driven by works that we enjoy playing, areas of performance we are challenged by or interested in at the moment, and of course by the music our audience wants to hear. Lately, we have been moving more in the direction of funk, Latin, and fusion jazz.

Johnny: What’s on the radar for PVF for the rest of 2017?

Gary: The band is sounding great. We have a number of gigs booked into the fall, and we are always exploring new tunes and original compositions. We have been nominated once again for Best Jazz Band in the East Texas Music Awards, which we have won for three years and the future looks bright for the Purple Velvet Fox Band.

Upcoming Shows:

  • July 22nd: Kawas Hibachi Grill and Lounge, Tyler
  • August 25th and September 15th: Fresh by Brookshire’s, Tyler

Purple Velvet Fox On The Web:

  • reverbnation.com/purplevelvetfox
  • facebook.com/purplevelvetfox

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Stefan Cotter: A Little Out Of The Ordinary

By Johnny Griffith

It’s the weekend. You want to get out of your home and enjoy some time out. Maybe some dinner and afterwards, a bit of live music at one of the venues around town but you want something a little different than the usual. Not that the usual isn’t good, but you’re just marching to the beat of a different drum today and want a soundtrack to accompany your mood. If that is the case, then you need to find where Stefan Cotter is playing and make your way to one of his shows.

Originally a product of Morgantown, West Virginia, the unique singer/songwriter eventually found his way to East Texas with his wife about 8 years ago and has been doing things a little differently ever since. With the ability to be comfortable playing multiple and disparate genres, Cotter has contributed to many local groups and continues to entertain audiences all over the region with his eclectic brand of musicianship that is definitely not the ordinary.

We tracked Stefan down to get a better perspective on what he’s doing and how he’s doing it:

Johnny: What were your earliest musical memories and what got you interested in being a musician initially?

Stefan: My dad is a trumpet player/teacher, who is finally retiring this year, and I remember him writing out “Mary Had a Little Lamb” and teaching me how to read music on the trumpet. As I recall, that was about 4th grade. He also did a lot of musical theater gigs in the summer when I was little and I used to go sit in the orchestra pit with all of the musicians and I thought it was awesome fun. Those people were great musicians, some of whom I still know to this day. I also got to experience him as my high school band director, which made for a lot of great fun! One memory that sticks out was probably around second grade when he let me march with the high school marching band and play cymbals in the small town we lived in during that time.

Johnny: Your bio on ReverbNation cites your genre as reggae, rockabilly, bluegrass, and rock. That’s an unique mix, especially in this neck of the woods. What are some of your staple cover tunes that really highlight a Stefan Cotter show?

Stefan: I have a lot of “favorite” cover songs but some that have stuck with me are: “Don’t Let Me Down” by the Beatles, “Valerie” by The Zutons, “Could You Be Loved and Waiting in Vain” by Bob Marley, plenty of 50’s country and rock ‘n roll, Chuck Berry’s “Roll over Beethoven,” and lots of old traditional bluegrass as well. Coming from West Virginia, bluegrass and old time music is everywhere.

Johnny: What drew you to those styles of music as your genres of choice?

Stefan: I have no logical explanation, but I assume the excitement. If the music is good, I get excited and the feet start stompin’. You know it when you hear it. That goes for reggae, jazz…anything. Also, I think punk rock/ska was my first love I reckon and there is something very punk rock about Chuck Berry, early Beatles, and early rockabilly. There’s just tons of energy. To add to that, the guy that taught me how to run a real sound system, Paul Vallett, also introduced me to REAL roots reggae, “Rock Steady,” and reggae dub. There is nothing better than testing a full on sound system when there is nobody there and just pounding that low and slow reggae. So that’s where the reggae came in I suppose.

Johnny: Who would you say your biggest musical influences were when you were discovering your “sound?”

Stefan: It’s constantly evolving, and that includes my sound too I guess. Sublime was my favorite band for a long time in Junior High and High School. Reel Big Fish was what band I wanted to be in. I was in Jazz band and the orchestra in high school so that brought in a lot of new music. Then I got into jazz/ classical music in college. I was obviously exposed to a ton of different ideas and I loved it. Again, the reggae sound system, then I found Django Reinhardt, who is my all time favorite guitarist. Bob Wills and John Prine and suddenly I get lost again on an entirely different rabbit hole. I’m also constantly influenced by the bands that I’ve played with, both as a college credit or rock bands that I played around with in Morgantown, most notably The Greens. You should check them out, those guys absolutely rock!

Johnny: Are you primarily a solo act or do you work with a stage band?

Stefan: Actually I try not to play solo any more. Its too much fun to play with other people. We’ve got Big Funky Cloud (BFC) at Stanley’s every Wednesday with Keith (“Grease”) Jones on bass, Nick Pencis on drums, Gary Freeman on keys, and myself.

Then we’ve got a string band that we call The Thing Band for lack of a better name. It is with Gary Freeman (keys), Jake Ham (drums) and myself play as a trio sometimes, and we throw in Jopi Drew (bass) for good measure when we can. Jake Ham and Jopi Drew and I have been playing music for the past 8 years or more and love it.

Johnny: About how many shows a month are you currently playing?

Stefan: I play about four shows a week. I play with BFC every Wednesday at Stanley’s BBQ and every Saturday with my old time/bluegrass band at The Grove and others thrown in there depending on the week.

Johnny: How many originals do you usually try to work into an average set?

Stefan: I try to work in about 10-12 but it just depends on the crowd and the night. Sometimes people are in the mood to dance to songs they know, but every now and then you can slip some originals in and the crowd will respond positively. Those are the nights you know it’ll be a fun time.

Johnny: Are you primarily playing in this area or are you traveling to other markets to play gigs?

Stefan: I’m currently just sticking around town. I’d like to get into Dallas but you’ve got to have some momentum to make money there and right now I’m trying to build that locally to be able to parlay that into some attention in the Dallas scene.

Johnny: How would you describe a typical set for a new listener?

Stefan: I call it “Rastabilly”which is lots of fun party-type reggae and old fashioned rockabilly/country/bluegrass all mixed with gypsy jazz. Be ready to dance!

Johnny: What’s on your radar for the rest of the year and beyond?

Stefan: Right now, just keeping busy playing shows mainly. Playing on my fellow bandmates records and hopefully being able to compile an album myself.

Be sure to check out Stefan Cotter online at facebook.com/stefancottermusic or stefancotter.com.

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Chris Oliver & Company: Making The Connection

By Johnny Griffith

If you’ve been to The Grove in Tyler recently on a Sunday morning for brunch, chances are you’ve been listening to the solid grooves of Chris Oliver & Company whether you realized it or not. Originally born in Tyler, Chris attended both Robert E Lee and John Tyler high schools before finishing at North Garland High School in 1995. Eventually moving back to Tyler, Oliver has been a mainstay in the music scene for several years. An accomplished drummer, Chris now fronts the eponymous Chris Oliver & Company and their mission is to make sure you walk away from a show with a smile on your face and the beat in your heart.

We talked with Chris recently to get more info on what they’ve got going:

Johnny: Who makes up the “& Company” portion of Chris Oliver & Company?

Chris: Chris Oliver & Company is myself, Josh Brock, Calvin Sheffield, and Dr. George Faber. That’s been the lineup since we started.

Johnny: How did you guys all meet?

Chris: I grew up with Calvin pretty much all my life and he’s been one of my best friends. We’ve played in church as well as playing in several other bands around the area including being the rhythm section for Wesley Pruitt. Dr. Faber has pretty much been a mentor to both of us since we were both young and has been playing forever. I met Josh Brock about 4 years ago and he was one of those guys that came in and fit like he’d been with us for years.

Johnny: How did Chris Oliver & Company form?

Chris: About 2 years ago, from another gig I was doing, I was asked to do a Sunday brunch show over at The Grove. I had to put together a band specifically for that and, you know, it’s not easy getting a bunch of musicians to do a mid-morning gig on Sunday after playing out till 2am the night before. That first bunch I put together is still Chris Oliver & Company today.

Johnny: You guys play a superb mix of songs…what genre would you consider your wheelhouse?

Chris: That’s a hard question. Everything has a season and I can look back and see where my musical life has been a steady progression with different styles and preferences each taking their turn. If I had to pick one singular style, I’d have to say blues-ish, but it’s really not that simple.

Johnny: You guys were invited to play down in Austin at the Heart of Texas Blues Challenge last year. How was that experience and what do you feel you learned as a band?

Chris: Yeah, we got the invite down there so Josh, myself, and another bass player went down due to Calvin not being able to make it, and we auditioned. They were impressed enough that we were invited to actually participate. We went back down in August and won the preliminary round which got us to the finals. While we were eventually beat out, it was a great experience. The finals were at Antone’s in Austin which has had some legendary players on stage over the years. That atmosphere, on that stage, you could feel the vibe and the history and we grew a lot from that.

Johnny: How far are you traveling to play shows at this point?

Chris: Right now we’re staying local until our album is finished. We will be getting ready to do a tour after that, which will take us out of state but until then it’s home.

Johnny: About how many shows are you playing a month these days?

Chris: We’re mainly hitting about four shows a month, really focusing on the album, and playing the standing brunch gig at The Grove.

Johnny: How have local crowds reacted to a band that doesn’t really fit the mold for this region?

Chris: Every time we hit the stage, I don’t care where it is, if they call us to play and you see this band and our show, I want you to have an experience. If you’re down, we’re going to hit a point in the set where we’re going to lift you up. But we’re not really there playing for the masses…we’re there for that individual and when you connect with lots of people on an individual level, something special happens.

Johnny: Are you working originals into your set list or is it primarily cover tunes?

Chris: It really depends on how we’re feeling that day. Some people who have heard our originals will ask for them but it really depends on the vibe. Sometimes we will throw some out and see what kind of reaction we get.

Johnny: How would you describe a typical Chris Oliver & Company show?

Chris: We try to get your attention, make you listen, make you have fun…we might take you to church, it just depends, but we always end with thank you and an appreciation for the audience.

Johnny: Any big plans on the horizon for the rest of the year?

Chris: Our main priority right now is finishing the album and putting together a tour to get the word out.

Johnny: So after two years of Chris Oliver & Company, what would you say has been your most memorable gig to this point?

Chris: That Antone’s gig for the Blues Challenge was easily most memorable. Everyone brought their “A” game and was on point. Again, that combined with the history of that place and the players that have graced that stage…it was unforgettable.

Johnny: Who would you say you’re listening to right now that gets you excited?

Chris: I’d say right now I’ve been listening to a lot of Donnie Hathaway vocally, but I’m just a fan of music in general.

You can catch Chris Oliver & Company at facebook.com/chrisoliverandcompany. You can also catch Chris Oliver & Company most Sundays during brunch at The Grove in Tyler.

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