Composer Mica Bethea a Hometown Hero at Jacksonville Jazz Fest

There’s no shortage of swing and groove in the music of composer Mica Bethea. But if listeners also detect undercurrents of courage, determination and faith, they wouldn’t be mistaken. Bethea is an artist with sweeping vision and boundless ambition, but off the stage, he’s an equally inspiring figure.

In 2005, Bethea, then a 21-year-old jazz student at the University of North Florida, was on his way back to campus when he was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer in stand-still traffic. The accident left close to 90 percent of his body paralyzed. When he finally awoke in the hospital, doctors told Bethea, a former saxophone player and pianist, that he would never play his instruments again.

Bethea refused to let the accident keep him away from music. After three years of rehabilitation, he returned to school to finish his degree, this time as a composer. He has since become a prominent figure in the North Florida jazz scene and a respected new voice in big band writing. His group, the Mica Bethea Big Band, has recorded three fearless and engaging albums, and has performed with guest artists like saxophonist Chris Potter and vocalist Linda Cole. His widening profile coincides with a surging interest in large ensemble writing, a movement spurred, in large part, by the success of artists like Maria Schneider, Ryan Truesdell and Darcy James Argue.

Bethea’s latest album, Suite Theory, is a smart yet hard-charging collection of originals. It presents a well-calibrated balance between accessibility and intricacy, and its songs are packed with meaning, grappling with themes such as Bethea’s life before the accident.

Bethea, a North Florida native, will be playing to a hometown crowd when he appears at the Jacksonville Jazz Festival this Saturday, May 26, at 3 p.m. In addition to Bethea, the festival, which runs May 24-27, will feature an impressive roster of headliners, with performances by vocalist Dianne Reeves (May 25), trumpeter Arturo Sandoval, percussionist Sheila E. (May 26), saxophone icon Charles Lloyd (May 25), pianist Vijay Iyer (May 26) and organ legend Dr. Lonnie Smith (May 25).

Visitors can also expect performances by the retro-swing ensemble Big Bad Voodoo Daddy (May 26), the eclectic trio The Bad Plus (May 26), the Jeff Lorber Fusion trio (May 27) and Trombone Shorty’s Orleans Avenue (May 27).

JAZZIZ spoke to Bethea over the phone to discuss his forthcoming appearance, as well as his approach to big band writing and his influences as a composer. Below is an excerpted version of the interview edited for length and clarity.

JAZZIZ: The Jacksonville Jazz Fest is in many ways a celebration of the North Florida jazz scene, of which you’re a prominent and active member. How many times have you performed at the fest?

Mica Bethea: This will be my second time as a headliner.

As a jazz festival destination, Jacksonville has developed some serious prestige. Speaking as a native, what do you think the Jacksonville Jazz Fest does well?

One, it’s free. You can just stop by and watch it. For a jazz festival, that’s amazing. Especially for a lot of locals. It amps up the crowd. It invigorates business downtown. I know two of my favorite restaurants do their biggest sales of the year during the jazz festival, so it does a lot for the local economy. It’s a fun event. My only disappointment is that I don’t get to catch every act. But that’s kind of a good thing. There’s something for everyone.

Who’s on your must-see list this year?

Other than myself? (laughs) Sheila E. will be good. Charles Lloyd. I’m a very big proponent of local musicians, especially from North Florida. I love acts like the Raisin Cake Orchestra [performing May 25]. I’ll definitely try to catch them.

Musicians from Jacksonville have some obvious pride in their city, and the jazz scene seems to be thriving.

As far as the musicians, it’s amazing. We have some of the top musicians based here. Two universities that teach jazz, several community colleges. It’s amazing the amount of jobs there are for people to teach. As far as gigs, most musicians gig from Atlanta to Orlando anyway, so it’s a wide scene.

You must be excited to perform in front of a hometown crowd.

It’s definitely enjoyable — and preferable (laughs).

Can you give us a hint as to what you’ll be playing on stage this year?

My big thing for a live performance is making sure everybody in the band is featured. Some big bands, you don’t get to hear from everyone. I try to make sure everyone’s heard. So the audience will hear a variety of stuff, from my first album, my second album and my third.

I generally like to start with a fusion tune, because it gives the sound guys time to get the sound together. I’ll be opening with Herbie Hancock’s “Hang Up Your Hang Ups.” And then I go from there to some swing stuff. [Vocalist] Linda Cole is actually going to sing a few songs with me.

That’s quite a guest spot. You’ve also had Chris Potter guest in your band. What was that like?

That was in 2013. I had, in conjunction with John Ricci, who does jazz at Jacksonville University, wanted to do a concert that would incorporate more students at JU. So I wanted to bring in Chris Potter and do a masterclass. He played half the concert with my big band, the other half with the group he was touring with at the time.

What did you take away from playing with Chris?

It was a blast, and there was so much happening. Just bonding with those musicians. You know, [for him], it’s going to a different part of the world and hearing that the music you’re passionate about is still going strong. So he was just so happy to bond with everyone. I wanted him to focus more on teaching the younger guys, because when I was younger, all the guest artists were what inspired me.

Were you always drawn to writing for the big band format? Or was that something you came to after the accident?

I couldn’t even conceive of arranging for a massive group when I was younger. Ironically, when I was very little, I didn’t like music at all. I was very confused by it. This was like when I was 4 or 5. And then I heard [vocal group] Take 6 on the Today Show, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness. That sounds amazing, such beautiful harmony.” And then I realized that my problem wasn’t music. It was that I had a natural proclivity for more complex harmony and more grandiosity.

Then my dad wound up playing a lot of music by the Maynard Ferguson Big Band, because he played that when he was in a high school, when he was a radio DJ back in the day. Through middle school, I went through a phase of focusing primarily on small group stuff. But when I got to college — UNF is a big band-centric college — it kind of just pushed me along that path. I had started to get into big band writing just before my accident.

Today, lots of people are writing big band charts, and it’s wonderful. It’s like the heyday of big bands. A resurgence.

You’re absolutely right. There are a lot of really great artists writing for big bands right now.

It’s funny, when you say big band, a lot of people think of a specific style of music. Whereas when I hear big band, I think of a specific instrumentation or medium for any type of music. And if you think about high schools and middle schools, it’s not as big as a concert band or orchestra; it’s a little smaller. So if you have limited students, it’s a lot easier for schools to just create big bands. Big bands also provide a vehicle for bigger artists and clinicians to work with more students and interact with them.

Also, the grandiose nature of big bands with modern charts that incorporate more modern styles means concerts are more accessible to your general audience. The only thing hindering it is the price to pay a full band.

I could probably write a book on this, but to summarize, it all starts from the bottom up. It’ll take one generation to make a change. Since I started high school 20 years ago, the growth has been phenomenal. I’m very happy and proud at the direction of things.

Do you ever find yourself doing the Ellington thing and writing the strengths of specific members of your band? 

Yes, heavily. When I did my masters, it was a master’s in jazz performance, because UNF didn’t have an arranging track. So I had to focus on arranging for performances. So I had to think specifically about the gig — who’s on it, writing a set list, making it flow. A lot of guys take so many different approaches to jazz in my band — from the classically strong to the improvisationally strong. From the person who can read intricate chord changes to the player who can just play what he hears. There are so many different approaches that I’m forced to write to their individual strengths. For example, my buddy plays a trumpet line that Freddie Hubbard plays a lot. So on the last tune we’re playing in the set, there’s actually a moment where all the trumpet players kind of echo that line with each other.

Sounds like a very personal touch.

Yeah. I would say that I could easily write my guys’ names on their music instead of their instruments — and feel comfortable with that.

Does not being able to play an instrument affect your compositional process?

Yes, because I can make the music harder and I don’t have to prove that I can play it (laughs). But you know, if you equate it to a different art form like making movies, I get to be the writer and the director as opposed to the actor. But you know, I kind of prefer it that way. It’s a symbiotic relationship between me and my band. I can’t be an artist without them. And I provide them an outlet to be artists with each other. It allows me to feel like a musician by living vicariously through all the guys who make my music.

Mica Bethea, center, with his big band.

We mentioned Maynard. We mentioned Ellington. Were there any other influences on your big band writing, anyone you discovered later in the game?

So, I came into this right before the accident: A trumpet player I used to work with introduced me to Joe Henderson. I hadn’t really heard Joe Henderson before that, and the album I was given was the Joe Henderson big band album. It was a big band, but it was different from Maynard and others, which were high-energy and a little pop-sounding. For Joe Henderson, it was his small group music, like melodies you don’t regularly hear with a big band. Very interesting arrangements and extremely focused on the soloist … Sometimes big bands can get away from a small-group mindset. But he had the small-group mindset with big-band arrangements.

You can also do the Village Vanguard Orchestra. Bob Brookmeyer became a very big influence. Maria Schneider. Jaco Pastorius, definitely. He knew how to treat soloists without making the music sound repetitive. He was a genius. Herbie Hancock, even though he doesn’t really do big band. If you listen to Man-Child, some of those albums, you hear bass trombone, flutes. You hear an octet or a nonet, a mini big band. Just the way he would approach the music was amazing. He knew how to do things that weren’t simple and weren’t complex, but they grooved.

You’re very involved in the jazz education scene in Jacksonville. If you were to impart one lesson to a young, aspiring composer, what would it be?

Diversify. Don’t always focus on one thing. Don’t say, “Oh, I only want to write Latin” or “I only want to write swing.” In today’s world you have to know and do everything. There are a few big names in this industry who can focus on one thing. But of all the great musicians I’ve found, they’ve always diversified. Be willing to change. You don’t know what you’re going to be like when you’re younger. You don’t have all the answers. But you have to have a direction. Follow it, and the answers will come.

To stay up to date on Bethea’s projects, visit his website at micabethea.com. For more information on the Jacksonville Jazz Fest, visit jacksonvillejazzfest.com

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