MOUNT VERNON — Local talent both past and present was featured in the 53rd Tops-N-Pops Concert at the Mount Vernon Middle School Commons on Friday night.
The Mount Vernon Middle School Jazz Band, The Mount Vernon High School Mellow Jackets and the 338th Army Jazz Band treated concertgoers to a cool and mellow experience.
This will be MVHS Band director Gary McCutcheon’s last Tops-N-Pops. He will be retiring as MVHS band director at the end of the school year after serving as band director for nearly 30 years.
“I’m going to try some different ventures for a while,” he said. “I’m not ready for the front porch and rocking chair yet.”
The Mellow Jackets have been swinging for more than half a century, and they did not disappoint the audience on Friday. The seven numbers they played ranged from the familiar — Count Basie’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” — to the esoteric — “Stinky’s Revenge” by Dallas Burke. The band is outstanding and some of the outsanding soloists included Dylan Schnormeier on trumpet and flugelhorn, Andrew Clarkson on guitar, Leah McCutcheon on tenor saxaphone and Casey Bower on alto saxaphone, to name just a few.
The Mount Vernon Middle School Jazz Band, under the direction of Carol McCutcheon, performed first. It played several difficult pieces, including “Hey Jude” and “Tuxedo Junction,” and make no mistake. The Middle School Roarin’ Jazz Band is not a bunch of kids tooting their horns to the beat of a metronome. Most members have been in the program since fourth or fifth grade; they are well versed in their instruments and can appreciate the subtlties of the music they played. They are well on their way to becoming the Mellow Jackets of tomorrow.
But the highlight of the evening was the 338th army Jazz Band, which played the second half of the program. The group has obviously been together for a long time and has probably spent as much time practicing as drilling.
It could play downtown Friday night in Greenwich Village or uptown Saturday night in Harlem, and people would think the fatigues and Army boots were just a gimmick.
Two members of the band — Sgt. First Class Michael Eaton, and Staff Sgt. Elli Flanagan — are graduates of Mount Vernon High School. Eaton plays trumpet and has been with the band for 14 years.
“I graduated from Mount Vernon High school in 1997,” Eaton said. “This is Gary McCutcheon’s last year as band director at Mount Vernon. I had Gary McCutcheon as band director in high school. I went through the band program from fourth or fifth grade all the way through high school.”
The 338th Army Jazz Band is based in Columbus and plays all over the country. But this is Eaton’s first visit to the Mount Vernon area since he has been with the band.
“I feel great about coming back,” he said. “This is actually the first time the band has officially played in Mount Vernon since I’ve been in. And it’s really nice since it’s Gary’s last year in Mount Vernon and it’s just something I really wanted to do.”
Flannagan is a clarinetist; this is also Flanagan’s first time back for Tops-N-Pops since she graduated.
“I graduated in 1997,” she said. “The I joined the Army, then went into the reserves. I’ve been with the band since 2002. It’s great to come back here. My parents still live here, but I just don’t get back that often. I’m really excited about playing here.”
Eaton’s solo in Charlie Parkers’s “Moose the Mooch” was flawless, and Flanagan’s vocals on Lerner and Loewe’s “Almost Like Being in Love” was haunting.
In the 53 years the Mellow Jackets have been in existence there have only been two directors, McCutcheon and Bob Bechtel, who founded the group in 1957.
“The first two years I was here I was Middle School Band Director,” McCutcheon explained. “Then, when Bob retired I took over at the high school, and I’ve been there ever since. It’s what I wanted to do. I love working with the kids and working with the community. My whole philosophy was to present music to the kids and get them to enjoy and appreciate it as much as I do. I won’t miss band camp and I won’t miss rain at football games. But I will miss working with these wonderful kids.”