Steven Partyka, drummer for Capital Region jazz group the Arch Stanton Quartet, wasn’t in the best of moods when the group went to perform for high school students in Egypt.
But the experience turned out to be the highlight of the band’s weeklong tour in the country from March 20-26, not just for Partyka but indeed for the whole band — guitarist Roger Noyes, bassist Chris Macchia and trumpeter Terry Gordon.
“[That was] the highlight of my life, and I don’t think that’s gonna change if I’m gone tomorrow or in 80 years,” Partyka said recently, while setting up for a gig at Jack’s Place at The College of Saint Rose, less than two weeks after the band had returned home.
“I think — well, I don’t want to speak for anybody else — I was all tired and cranky when we got there, and we just walked out onstage, and it sounded like 5,000 people just paid $200 apiece to see us, the way they just went nuts — and they had no idea who we were.”
Excited and appreciative
For the entire band, the level of enthusiasm they received from the high school students was overwhelming — especially considering their unfamiliarity with the traditional jazz, swing and blues that Arch Stanton performs.
“A lot of them, I don’t think, had heard American jazz music before, really, which is a little bit surprising because it is a major metropolitan city we’re performing in,” Noyes said. “But at the same time I think, if they are exposed to jazz music, a lot of it might not be as traditional or straight-ahead as maybe what we do. So I think that was visibly very new to them and exciting, and so they let us know that. That was a fantastic part of the trip.”
The trip was anchored by two performances at the fifth annual Cairo International Jazz Festival, held March 21-23. American nonprofit organization AMIDEAST in Egypt, the U.S. Embassy in Egypt and the American University in Cairo funded the band’s tour, in the tradition of the U.S. State Department’s jazz diplomacy tours in the ’50s and ’60s with artists such as Dave Brubeck and Louis Armstrong.
As part of the diplomacy side of the trip, the band spent time performing at both the university and for high school students in Cairo and Alexandria, through AMIDEAST’s Access program. These performances also involved panel discussions and workshops with the students. Often, the band members felt they were sharing more than just jazz music, but the ideals of American culture and government too.
“That was an important element of what we defined as the study of jazz diplomacy, which is the sort of American tradition of democracy and what our ideals are,” Noyes said. “You have a common goal, a common purpose — it’s your chart, your musical chart that the band is following. But at the same time, everybody is trusted to play their role, and everybody has something that they can say or contribute in their solo [and] improvisation. And that improvisation can sometimes have friction with the sound of the band, but should complement it in a way. There’s a push and pull, so that’s kind of the message that we talked about.”
“It’s the message of a democratic society, and how it really works correctly, and how a jazz group is kind of a musical embodiment of that,” Gordon added.
Exotic, in a way
The quartet was one of two U.S. bands to play the Cairo International Jazz Festival, along with New York City group the K.J. Denhert Band. Morocco, Lebanon, Japan, Lithuania, Bulgaria, France and England were all represented on the lineup.
“It was kind of funny, at the jazz festival — we’re relatively straight-ahead, but I felt like [we were] the exotic band,” Macchia said. “There was a lot of almost like Middle Eastern-fusion type of music, and I think we were the only band I saw that really swung, you know. We had a blues feeling, which I don’t think most of the bands there had.”
Jim Ketterer, Arch Stanton’s former drummer who founded the group about four years ago, was instrumental in gettiing the band to Egypt.
About two years ago, he became country director for AMIDEAST in Egypt, which works to prepare Egyptians looking to head to the U.S. for higher education, as well as hosting other cultural events through the U.S. Embassy-run Access program.
“He’s well-connected, and he made the contacts and made everything happen,” Gordon said. “So it’s really Jim Ketterer’s legwork.”
Just regular people
This was the farthest away from home that anyone in the band had toured — Noyes spent a term in China while in school, where he also performed, but not to the level that the Arch Stanton Quartet did on this trip. So perhaps the most surprising thing about the trip for everyone involved was how little culture shock they experienced. Most of the people they met spoke English, and many of the signs were written in both Arabic and English, so the language barrier was negligible as well.
“I think the biggest thing is something I suspected and finally was able to actually see for myself, is that we have more in common with people over there than anything else,” Macchia said. “Just regular people trying to have a good time, live their lives, be with their family. Really no crazy differences other than subtle cultural ones.”
“I think you’re always sort of surprised when you visit a foreign country, how sort of not unlike your own it is,” Noyes added. “There are sections of Queens that are no different than Cairo.”
The band did come across signs of the January 2011 Egyptian Revolution — at one point, a souvenir shopping spree suggested by a travel companion led the band just outside Tahrir Square, where most of the protesting was centered and still continues.
“It was on a Friday, which is protest day,” Gordon said. “We walked right past one.”
“Which is an amazing thing to see,” Noyes continued. “You know, we should have seen that, because we’re there, and that’s kind of what’s everyday life for a lot of people in the country. So it was really important for us to see that.”
For the most part, though, the band was able to avoid any areas where violence had taken place, despite seeing some remnants of the revolution.
“We avoided certain areas where that might have flared up more,” Noyes said. “I mean, certainly we saw buildings like the Interior Ministry Building we saw that had been just a blackened shell they left standing — just burned. There was a hotel that had the same thing. So you’d pass by these structures, sort of remnants.”
‘It was great; we loved it’
Then there was the festival itself, where the band received one of the most enthusiastic reactions it has ever had.
“Even at the jazz fest, the American jazz club etiquette — the clapping after solos, a little bit of hooting and hollering. And you see people when you go to jazz clubs — people are having a conversation, the band stops, people just clap — it’s like an automatic reaction,” Partyka said.
“That so much didn’t exist, because I guess it is just part of our American culture of jazz, but everybody — after every performance that we did, people came up and said, ‘It was great; we loved it’ — much more so than just playing a jazz club here.”