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Building a community through jazz

The Astoria Big Band performs at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning in 2011, with Carol Sudhalter (c.) leading the pack with her saxophone. Photo by Norm Harris
TimesLedger Newspapers

With roots in New Orleans that are over a century old, jazz music began as a communal phenomenon inclusive to musicians and members of a unique artistic affiliation.

It’s also emotional. Jazz thrives on instrumental diversity, improvisation and energetic solos. Its impromptu character is what makes it so seductive and exciting — and today jazz music is beloved the world over.

Saxophonist Carol Sudhalter knows a thing or two about New York City’s jazz scene. With a milestone birthday coming up in January, the longtime Astoria resident has much to celebrate. She has worked hard perfecting her craft and entertaining jazz lovers with the melodic, inventive and burning sounds of her baritone and tenor saxes for almost three soulful decades — she’s even named her tenor sax “Betty.” She and her dynamic Astoria Big Band have even made a name for themselves in Italy and Britain.

On Dec. 1, jazz fans had an opportunity to enjoy the hot and cool sounds of Sudhalter’s whaling sax accompanied by her 16-member band at Steinway Reformed Church, 41st Street and Ditmars Boulevard in Astoria. This rare grant-supported event included original arrangements by band members past and present, including Stanley Bielski, Glenn Mills, Charlie Camilleri and Vito Di Modugno.

The legendary vocalist Keisha St. Joan — one of the finest jazz, blues and ballad stylists — was featured.

“We had over 75 people, which is especially great for a rescheduled concert (due to Hurricane Sandy), fabulous enthusiasm and a wide age range. The concert was wonderful, the band sounded great,” says Sudhalter.

Some of the greatest jazz and big band names made Queens their home: Saxophonist John Coltrane, who is regarded by many as the finest jazz performer in history, Count Basie and of course Louis Armstrong — to name a few.

In the spirit of those jazz legends, Sudhalter took her passion to a whole new level when in 1986 she decided to create her own band, at a time when Queens lacked a contemporary big band. “There was only one ‘nostalgia’ big band,” she said, adding, “I love that music — Glenn Miller, Artie Shaw and all of that. I simply wanted my band to play something different.”

In the summer of 2010, Sudhalter presented “Women’s Works — Two Queens Composers” at the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Corona with Emme Kemp and Sarah McLawler, two great women of jazz.

Sudhalter says her main influence was her dad, who played alto sax. Other inspiring role models include musician and composer David Amram, 81, who played with the band back in April, and other octogenarians, like Rudy Lawless, Sarah McLawler, Roy Haynes and Barry Harris.

Originally from Newton, Mass., Sudhalter has been renting the second floor of a two-family house in Astoria for 32 years.

She says she hopes they never do away with “my local all-night Bel Aire Diner.”

Sudhalter placed ninth in the 2012 jazz readers’ poll by DownBeat magazine, the genre’s go-to bible of all things jazz, in the category of International Best Flutist.

Keith Gurland plays lead alto saxophone in the band. He has known Sudhalter since the mid-1990’s and has been a part of the band since then. “I would cite saxophonists Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, and pianist Lennie Tristano as my all-time favorites. Saxophonist Sonny Rollins is a special favorite,” he says.

“These are all players whose intellect and logic served to create music that is, at times, humorous and deeply romantic,” Gurland says. “A songwriter who can also be described in those terms is Cole Porter.”

Linda Presgrave plays piano with the band. “I met Carol in 1998, shortly after I moved to New York from St. Louis, Mo.,” she says. “Playing at the Louis Armstrong House Museum with Carol’s band was a highlight.”

Sudhalter played alongside the late Tito Puente, the Latin jazz star and salsa musician, in the first all-female Latin band, “Latin Fever,” at the 1978 Salsa Festival at Madison Square Garden.

“I love giving concerts in interesting and historic sites around Queens, like the Louis Armstrong House, the Ralph De Marco Park, Athens Square Park, the Forest Park Carousel, the libraries,” says Sudhalter.

“I’m also very excited about a house concert I’m doing with (vocalist) Richard Lanham and our band on Dec. 30 at his beautiful Harlem apartment. I love the whole idea of house concerts and am working hard to develop a series of them.”

sudhalter.com

If You Go

Upcoming performances featuring Carol Sudhalter:

The Metropolitan Room

34 West 22nd St.

Manhattan

(212) 206-0440

$20 cover

Reservations encouraged

Dec. 23, 24, 26, 7 pm

Something’ Jazz

212 E. 52nd St., Third floor

Manhattan

(212) 371-7657

$10 cover

Dec. 27, 9 pm

House concert

1851 Adam Clayton Blvd. Apt. 19

Manhattan

(212) 864-0253

$10 admission

Reservations required

Dec. 30, 3 pm

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