York, Vincent 1952–
Vincent York 1952–
A former member of the Duke Ellington Orchestra, Vincent York has played with some of the most prominent jazz bands and big bands in the United States, including Cab Calloway, the Ray Charles Orchestra, the Jimmy Dorsey Orchestra, Doc Severinson & the Tonight Show Band, the Mckinney Cottonpickers, and the Nelson Riddle Orchestra. He has accompanied some of the country’s most famous singers and performers such as Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, Rosemary Clooney, Pearl Bailey, Sammy Davis Jr., Bob Hope, Johnny Mathis, and Danny Thomas. York has also performed with The Temptations, Aretha Franklin, and The Four Tops in addition to being musical director for Martha Reeves and the Vandellas. A versatile musician, York has also played with symphony orchestras, performed for several musicals and plays, and has appeared on several television and radio programs including the Ed Sullivan Show and CBS’s Motown and … All That Jazz.
After several decades of playing with some of the most legendary musicians and performers in the country, York, who asserted that “jazz saved his life,” decided to explore the tremendous cultural, political, and historical significance of jazz. Consequently, he formed Jazzistry, an innovative educational program designed to inform students, and the general public, about jazz not only as an art form, but as a unique byproduct of multicultural influences in America. In his program, York explored the social and historical context of jazz, bringing back to life, through biographical and musical examples, the many forgotten and lesser known chapters of a quintessentially American tradition. Using music, storytelling, and cultural commentary, York has taken his audiences on a time-travel, first back to West Africa, through the music characteristic of southern American slaves, to ragtime, bebop, and right up to the most current form of jazz. Jazzistry covered four hundred years, thus exploring some of the most dramatic—sometimes even devastating—events in American history. Jazzistry is performed for a wide variety of ages, from kindergartners to adults. Each performance is tailored for the audience.
One of three children born to George “Tiny” York and Lillie Evans York, Vincent Lamar York was born in
At a Glance…
Born on June 25, 1952, in Jacksonville, FL; son of George “Tiny” and Lillie Evans York; married Kathleen; children: Natasha, Cedric Education: Southern University, BA, 1974; University of Michigan, MA, 1976
Career: Jazz musician, 1975–; Vincent York’s new York Force, founder and saxophonist, 1977–; Ann Arbor Community High School, artist in residence, 1996-2000; Jazzistry, founder and performer, 1999–.
Membership: Ann Arbor Federation of Musicians; Detroit Federation of Musicians; American Federation of Musicians
Awards: Best Soloist, Southern University; Outstanding Musician, National Endowment of the Arts; Best Album of the Year for Blending Forces, Metro Times, 1990.
Address: Office —730 Miller, Ann Arbor, Ml, 4B103.
Jacksonville, Florida, on June 25, 1952. Just before he started school, his family moved to Vero Beach, Florida, where they lived in the predominantly black community of Gifford. York’s mother worked as a beautician; and his father, “Tiny,” was a tenor sax player, who also led his own orchestra, the Tiny York Orchestra. He also worked as a landscaper. Although York’s family worked hard and long, they remained poor. York also worked, helping his grandfather maintain local orange groves and working with his father’s landscaping business.
York attended public schools where he first learned to play the clarinet and the oboe. What York really wanted to play, however, was the saxophone, just like his father. Unfortunately, the saxophone was not among the instruments supplied by the school and York was forced to work to save up enough money to buy his first saxophone. Fortunately, his passion for music was nurtured by a supportive home environment. His father kept the household entertained with a perpetual stream of musicians who would come to the house to play. York’s grandparents, Charlie and Early Evans, owned a restaurant right next to Vincent’s house, where Tiny’s band would often play. York said in an interview with Contemporary Black Biography (CBB) that his bedroom faced the restaurant, and that, as a youngster, he sat at his window, transfixed, listening to the music and watching all the people who came to listen. Recalling those early years, York told CBB, “Not only was the music great, but everyone was dressed really cool, particularly the band.” After he became proficient on the saxophone, York toured with his father throughout Florida, playing at various restaurants and house parties. He told CBB, “My father was my first inspiration.… He was pure jazz. He was so smooth—he was the real thing. He had it down, even the way he smoked his cigarette was cool.” Tiny was a magnet for people and would go to great lengths to find good, local musicians to play with. York remembered that Tiny would drive to the “blind school” and bring home none other than Ray Charles, with whom, decades later, York would share a stage.
York’s adolescence presented him with profound challenges. York had a difficult time fitting into his all-black community because of his light complexion. He got into fights every day and did poorly in school. In addition to having problems with his peers, York not only endured physical abuse from teachers but also received unwanted and inappropriate attention from one of his teachers, an event that confused and angered York, and ultimately denied him a portion of his education. York responded to these challenges by focusing on music and he became an excellent saxophone player. York told CBB, “If I hadn’t become a jazz musician, I would have been a totally different person. I would have ended up in a bad way … actually, it was Charlie Parker that saved my life.” York still has the Parker album, Bird & Diz, that he played over and over again during that time of his youth. As a result of forced integration, York attended a predominantly white high school, an environment that he found kinder and more accepting than his middle school. In essence, York explained to CBB, “integration also saved my life.” During high school, York worked hard to achieve good grades and played in the marching and jazz bands. Already an accomplished musician, he could play several instruments and perform in a variety of styles, and this extraordinary versatility helped York win the John Phillip Sousa Award.
After high school, York attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he studied with Alvin Batiste and, as it so happened, became the university’s first jazz studies major. While a student at Southern University, York took advantage of Baton Rouge’s proximity to New Orleans, the legendary city of jazz. During his Louisiana years, he also met and married Kathleen Desselle.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in 1974, York intended to move to New York. However, an acquaintance, Johnnie Lane, described the music program at the University of Michigan and persuaded York to send in an audition tape. He sent a tape in and was granted a scholarship to the University of Michigan. He earned his M.A. in classical saxophone performance in 1976.
While still a student at the University of Michigan, armed with a strong recommendation from Batiste, York joined the Duke Ellington Orchestra, under the direction of Mercer Ellington, with whom he toured the United States, Europe, and Japan until 1977. That year York started his first band, The Force, later renamed Vincent York’s new York Force. York subsequently decided to move from Michigan back to Louisiana to join the Dick Stabile Band in New Orleans. York recalled how he played at the Fairmont Hotel, two shows a night, six nights a week for two years.
Eventually, York settled in Ann Arbor, Michigan, where he immersed himself in playing his instruments, teaching jazz, and recording. His first CD, Blending Forces, was voted Best Album of the Year by Metro Times magazine in 1990. Focusing the Vision, York’s second CD appeared in 1998. In 1996 the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs appointed York artist in residence at Ann Arbor’s Community High School. York held this position for four consecutive years, forming several student bands and taught many up-and-coming jazz musicians. He also established the jazz studies program at Washtenaw Community College, teaching various music classes at the college including improvisation, and also directed the college’s large jazz orchestra. Always adding new material to his Jazzistry program, York also teaches and performs at local venues.
Blending Forces, 1990.
Focusing the Vision, 1998.
“Vincent York,” All Music, www.allmusic.com (June 12, 2003).
Vincent York’s Jazzistry, http://oldwww.matrix.msu.edu/touring/category.cfm?TypeofArt=Music_-_Jazz&record=ll (June 12, 2003).
Additional information for this profile was obtained through a personal interview with Contemporary Black Biographyon May 23, 2003, and a brochure provided by Jazzistry on May 23, 2003.
—Christine Miner Minderovic
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