Jazz legend Nat Phipps to receive lifetime achievement award

Nat Phipps, on piano, performs in a trio at Jazz Vespers at First Reformed Church in Schenectady. (Courtesy of First Reformed Church)

Nat Phipps, on piano, performs in a trio at Jazz Vespers at First Reformed Church in Schenectady. (Courtesy of First Reformed Church)

Categories: -The Daily Gazette, Entertainment

On Sunday, many members of the jazz community will gather (masked and socially distanced) at the First Reformed Church to honor pianist Nat Phipps, who has been performing for more than 40 years in the Capital Region. 

At 5 p.m., Phipps will receive a lifetime achievement award from the church, where he has performed since 2008. The ceremony precedes the church’s Jazz Vespers, a live performance of classic selections by Phipps, with bassist Pete Toigo and drummer Pete Sweeney. 

Phipps, who as a teenager began playing in local bands in his native Newark, New Jersey, in the 1950s, honed his craft in the clubs of Newark and New York City during the heyday of jazz. His band opened for the likes of Lionel Hampton and Nat King Cole, and won the amateur competition at the famed Apollo Theater multiple times; legendary sax player Wayne Shorter was a good friend and friendly competitor. 

After serving a tour of duty with the U.S. Army in Europe and earning his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at NYU, Phipps found a new career teaching in metropolitan New York City schools. His ability to connect with troubled teens and inspire them with music led to his being named New York State’s Teacher of the Year in 1976; the student band he led at Brooklyn’s Sterling High School was invited to play throughout New York and New Jersey, at the Kennedy Center, and on “The Today Show.” 

Phipps joined the state Education Department in 1979 and moved to the Capital Region. After retiring, he continued to teach at local colleges and play gigs.

A community-minded citizen who heard Martin Luther King, Jr. speak at the 1963 March on Washington, Phipps still volunteers for church and community groups, and occasionally can be persuaded to play some tunes. 

“Nat has spent so many years giving of himself to others through his playing, teaching, and genuine warmth,” said First Reformed Church Senior Pastor Bill Levering. “This is a wonderful opportunity to recognize him for the great pleasure he has given to us.” 

The event is free and open to the public; registration is required (for social distancing) at 1stReformed.com. The church is at 8 N. Church St. in the Stockade section.

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