Milton Fletcher, Jr. comes home to kick off the 2004 Monterey Jazz Festival.
Thursday, September 16, 2004
A teacher’s most satisfying experience is often when a former student returns to express appreciation for valuable lessons learned.
That’s what makes pianist Milton Fletcher, Jr.’s homecoming on Friday such a triumphant moment for Monterey. The pianist, who opens the Monterey Jazz Festival on the Garden Stage with his trio, is a product of the festival’s extensive, often overlooked educational programs.
Growing up on the Peninsula, he started playing classical music at four. By the 6th grade, his mom suggested he start playing jazz and he was instantly hooked.
“It offered another way to express myself,” Fletcher says. “I loved the idea of being able to create spontaneously. The music just captivated me.”
Throughout his years at Monterey High School, from which he graduated in 2000, Fletcher absorbed musical wisdom from the Festival’s traveling clinicians. He performed at the Jazz Festival with the High School All-Star Band and attended the two-week jazz camp every summer, learning about the music’s history, and about what it takes to make it as a professional musician.
Fletcher gives particular credit to the late trumpeter Bill Berry and pianist Tee Carson.
“It was their love for the music,” Fletcher says. “They dedicated their whole life to this form of music. And that was so inspirational.”
It was Carson who convinced him to pursue music as a career, rather than baseball, which was Fletcher’s first love. While he was also drawn to jazz, it was just a hobby until Carson took him aside and told him he had the talent it took to succeed.
“He said ‘I see the potential, you can do this,’” Fletcher recalls. “From that point in time music was my passion. Going into seventh grade, that’s all I did. I bought all the records I could, Count Basie, Miles, Clark Terry.
“Junior high was my fastest, most rapid growth. That’s where all the foundational principles were learned. I really owe it to Tee Carson. It was his character—such a sweet guy. He always allowed us to express ourselves. He taught the wisdom of the music, about how it’s not just playing a bunch of chords or licks. It’s learning to express your personality through this language. He was like a grandfather figure to me, and truly changed my life.”
Now based in the San Bernardino County town of Temecula, Fletcher is looking to change other people’s lives.
Working with his business partner, drummer Deon Hairston, Fletcher started a production company, M’Kaddesh, and a non-denominational church, Baraka Faith Ministries International, which seeks to “raise up people of influence and integrity,” Fletcher says.
On the musical side, his approach is also non-denominational “We’re working with songwriters, hip-hop, neo-soul, and straight-ahead jazz. We’re hitting every style.”
Fletcher settled in Southern California about a year ago, after graduating from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music, which he attended on a Jimmy Lyons Scholarship from the Monterey Jazz Festival. While he started out with the single-minded focus of becoming a jazz musician, he quickly became fascinated by the intricacies of the music business.
“I learned about copyright and I learned that I wanted to control my music,” Fletcher says. “I wanted to be a producer, controlling the copyright.”
The trio he’s bringing to Monterey features Hairston on drums and Yasushi Nakamura on bass. The musicians, who all met while attending Berklee, have been playing together for several years. A performance they recorded earlier this year at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz is slated as their first release, a session that captures their volatile bandstand chemistry. They’ve developed a group sound that generally avoids traditional solos, where one musician is out front in the lead. “We’re all in the foreground,” Fletcher says.
The group’s repertoire is made up of standards and Fletcher’s originals, which are clearly based on jazz swing, but draw widely on other musical styles.
“It’s still jazz,” Fletcher says. “It’s true to the roots of jazz, and we don’t know what’s going to happen—that’s the vibe. The crowd plays a part, too. It’s for them. If it was just for us, we wouldn’t perform. We want them to experience the love and joy and happiness that we feel through our music.”
In many ways, Fletcher is looking to spread the enduring lessons he learned as a young musician at the Monterey Jazz Festival, like the time legendary trumpeter Clark Terry insisted on working with the high school band, even though he was clearly fighting through physical pain.
“He was in a wheelchair at the time,” Fletcher says. “He came to one of the rehearsals and talked to us. It was a struggle for him just to get on stage, and he didn’t have to do that for us, but he did. It was his love of the music and his desire to share, it made him indomitable. I’ll never forget that.”
The Milton Fletcher Trio, with Yasushi Nakumura on bass and Deon Hairston on drums, plays the Garden Stage at the Monterey Jazz Festival Friday at 6:30pm. Grounds passes providing acess to three stages all night are $30 at the door. Monterey Fairgrounds.