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The Jazz Connection: Spreading The Good Grooves

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By Johnny Griffith

For a genre of music that is often called “America’s Classical,” jazz is often seen as a genre not easily accessible. Typically, the further you get away from large cities, the fewer options for exposure you have. Here in East Texas, the musical landscape is largely taken up by variations of rock and country. In the midst of it all, a few intrepid missionaries spread gospel of the Jazz. One of the few bands that carry these musical disciples are The Jazz Connection (TJC) based out of Tyler. The quintet has come together and bonded over their love of all things Jazz and can be seen around East Texas bringing the joy of their music to the people.

Johnny: What is the current lineup of the band?

TJC: The full complement of musicians is a quintet comprised of:

George Faber on keyboard who is the retired Director of Fine Arts for the Tyler Independent School District. He is from East Texas and is a staple in the East Texas music scene. He has his own group called Faber and Friends that plays everywhere.

Phil Rumbley on bass is a long time East Texas resident and is in great demand as one of the area’s premier bass players. He is also the bass teacher at Dogan Middle School in Tyler.

J.T. Pundt on trumpet/flugelhorn was born and raised in San Antonio and has lived in East Texas for 38 years. He is a mechanical engineer by day for Eastman Chemical Company in Longview, but trumpet playing is his passion. He currently leads The Jazz Connection and also plays with other Big Bands in the area.

Dr. Sarah Roberts on sax hails from Iowa and is the Assistant Professor of Saxophone and Jazz Studies at UT Tyler. She is in great demand as both a performer and clinician. She has been instrumental in establishing The Jazz Academy in Tyler, teaching high school age students about playing jazz. She is a Vandoren Regional Artist.

Joey Monk on drums is a long time East Texas resident and is a professional drummer. He has toured the country with several different groups and is in great demand throughout East Texas. In addition to The Jazz Connection, Joey plays locally with Otis and the Metros and other groups.

Johnny: How did you guys meet and when did the idea of a band get kicked around for the first time?

TJC: We owe our beginnings to the vision of Dr. John Webb, who was the Professor of Jazz Studies at UT Tyler. Although we have all known each other for many years and played together in different groups, John was able to pull us all together in 2010 with a common vision of playing America’s Original Art Form – Jazz. John was a professional musician long before he was a professor at UT Tyler, and his knowledge of the musical repertoire is astounding. He constantly challenged us to play at a very high level with music from great jazz artists like Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Freddie Hubbard, Horace Silver, Dizzy Gillespie, etc. But more than just the technical aspects of jazz, John saw playing jazz music as “a lively conversation between friends.” Those friends include not only members of the band but also the audience. That conversation creates a connection between people that transcends the spoken word and touches your soul. John relocated to California in 2017, and we honor his legacy with every performance.

Johnny: How is the Jazz Scene in East Texas?

TJC: There are a surprising number of really good jazz musicians in East Texas! And the Jazz scene seems to be expanding, thanks to many local venues that support live music. I think once people get a chance to hear good live jazz, they get hooked, and they want more. We have a pretty loyal following of fans that attend our performances and ask us where we are playing next. Those fans tend to spend money at the establishments that host us, so jazz music creates a win-win for the community.

Johnny: About how many gigs on average do you play a month?

TJC: We are currently playing three to five times per month.

Johnny: What’s the farthest you guys have traveled for a gig so far?

TJC: We’ve gone as far as Mount Vernon, Texas, though we play regularly at Los Pinos Ranch Vineyards in Pittsburg, Texas.

Johnny: In a musical landscape dominated by rock and country, how has the reception been to a Jazz band?

TJC: The people that hear us generally respond very positively. For those new to jazz, I think they are surprised that the music is so accessible. There are many tunes with beautiful chord progressions that add depth and texture to the music; there are a variety of tempos and styles that add musical interest to a performance. Even people who are primarily rock and country fans are surprised that the standard blues chord progression, which they may be more familiar with, is a foundation for many jazz tunes. Musical roots transcend different musical styles.

Johnny: What’s been your best memory as a band to this point?

TJC: There are so many rewarding times when we see that we made that connection with our audience. It’s hard to pick just one! We did have a really fun gig at ETX Brewing Company on Halloween. The band dressed up in costumes and everybody had a good time.

Johnny: Is there one particular style of Jazz you focus more on or is it a pretty good cross-section of the genre?

TJC: We play a pretty good cross-section of styles. In any given show, you might hear Jazz Standards, Bebop, Hard Bop, Dixieland, Afro-Cuban Jazz, Latin Jazz, and Modal Jazz. We like to mix it up.

Johnny: What would you say your most requested song is from your crowds?

TJC: That’s a hard question since our music is so diverse. It really depends on the mood of the crowd. Sometimes they are in the mood for something up-tempo like “A Night in Tunisia,” or “There Will Never Be Another You,” or if they are feeling romantic, something like “My Romance” or “My Funny Valentine.”

Johnny: What do you hope first-time listeners will take from a Jazz Connection show?

TJC: We always hope they sense the joy we feel when playing this music and that they feel the connection that the music creates between people. We also hope they gain an appreciation for the artistry of so many that came before us and contributed to this uniquely American art form.

Johnny: Any can’t miss shows coming up in the next couple of months?

TJC: One show I would definitely recommend is FRESH by Brookshire’s on April 7th. It is an outdoor venue (they have a great patio), very laid back, great food and drinks, and we get a chance to stretch out a little bit. Come, relax, bring the kids, and have a great time! We keep our calendar current on our Facebook page at so you can check out our schedule.

Johnny: Thanks again for your time.

TJC: Thank you for helping us spread the gospel of Jazz in East Texas!

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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 or

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

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