Richard M. Barrett reflects on the value of our rich diversity of music in the Mohawk Valley.
Central New York and the Mohawk Valley has always been a very musical place with its rich history, quality talent, and diversity of genres and styles. In many ways, music is our heartbeat, and it brings us together holistically as a community, speaking a universal language that we all can relate to and understand.
Years ago, this area was a popular stop on the jazz circuit and regularly drew top-name musicians who jammed with local players in intimate neighborhood clubs. Keyboardist Rick Montalbano of Rome recalls playing gigs with horn player Chuck Mangione in the '70s. For many years, we had our own symphony orchestra, one of numerous conducted by Frankfort resident, Maestro Charles Schnieder, who has conducted symphonies all over the world. We’ve produced a number of highly skilled musicians, including Utican Joe Bonamassa, a former child prodigy now recognized as one of the top blues rock guitarists in the world.
We’re fortunate to have wonderful venues where we can fully experience the energy and vibe of live music. Maybe it’s a rock concert at the Aud or The Stanley Theater, jazz at Tiny’s or The Savoy, a classical music performance at Clinton High School’s auditorium. There’s music al fresco at the free Levitt AMP outdoor summer concert series in Utica’s Kopernick Park, and live local bands are featured attractions at Saranac Thursdays and Varick Street’s bars and clubs in the Brewery District. You can usually see a touring band at Turning Stone’s Showroom, and during the summer, there is opera at Glimmerglass and shows under the stars at Brewery Ommegang’s outdoor amphitheater. And who doesn’t enjoy taking in an open mic night at a local pub? If you haven’t, you should some time. You could be pleasantly surprised.
On any given day or night, we have a choice of hearing a community civic band, a child prodigy fiddler, a blues singer, cover or tribute bands; Big Band orchestras, piano players, or jazz trios. The selection can also include rappers, reggae and metal bands, church choirs and choral groups, high school concert and marching bands, and classic rock, country, and bluegrass acts.
But that’s only one side of the coin.
Due in large part to generations of immigrants and a culturally diverse refugee population settling here, the Mohawk Valley’s music profile has come to reflect the many different influences and cultures of nations all over the globe. Each year, people who are deeply committed to maintaining their heritage and traditions organize festivals and special events that celebrate their cultures and feature music as the centerpiece. Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Bavarian, Hispanic, Polish, Ukrainian, and Lebanese are just a few that come to mind, but there are many more. Within a 50-mile radius of home, we can take a musical trip around the world.
The festival organizers deserve a shout out for their noble intentions, but so do the many Mohawk Valley restaurateurs, bar and club owners, the so-called “little guys,” who keep music of all stripes alive and well here. Along with the musicians, they are the lifeblood of the local music scene, and the ones that ensure it remains vibrant. Without them, the music dies.
Certainly, big-name concerts are exciting and we’re proud to draw nationally-known acts here, but those can’t sustain us musically. As impressive as an arena show can be, sitting a few feet away from a group of musicians and not only hearing them sing and play, but also seeing and feeling their energy and emotion, is an experience the big shows can’t deliver. Owners who support and promote local music and musicians get that, and realize the value that kind of intimacy brings to their customers, their businesses, and the area’s music culture. We’re all the better for it - patrons, players, and proprietors.
Through the language of music, we are culturally enriched and become more deeply connected as an extended community. It’s a good feeling to know the Mohawk Valley offers music for all ears and plenty of places to enjoy it. Seek and you will find.