Jazz is like a conversation. Musicians communicate with each other and with the audience in musical sentences. They must listen to what is being said by their fellow musicians and respond appropriately, filling the music with the depth of their personality.
A young Thomson native is mastering that art of musical conversation everyday as one of the top 15 jazz musicians in the country.
Chris Crenshaw, a 25-year-old Thomson High graduate, is living the perfect jazz musician's life - playing, writing, celebrating, loving and sharing his talent.
"Playing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is my dream," said Mr. Crenshaw. "This is something that I always wanted to do, but I couldn't have gotten anywhere without my family, friends and the community of Thomson and all of their support."
Ever since he was born, music has been a driving force in Mr. Crenshaw's life. He started singing before he could talk and by age three he was playing piano on his own. The son of Casper and Jeanette Crenshaw of Thomson, Mr. Crenshaw grew up with all types of music around him - gospel from his father's group called the Echoes of Joy, from Springfield Baptist Church and many other churches in the area; old school R&B, funk, hip-hop and rap from friends and other musicians; classical, jazz and big band music from music teachers and school and any other kind of music that he could get in his ear from anyone who would teach him or let him sit in.
Mr. Crenshaw's first gig was in his father's gospel group, playing keyboards. At age 11, he picked up his first trombone and has yet to put the instrument down. He continued piano lessons while playing in middle and high school band and taking trombone lessons. One of his teachers was Waynesboro, Ga.,-native Wycliffe Gordon, an alumnus of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra and Wynton Marsalis' septet. Mr. Crenshaw received accolades for his playing along the way and in 2001, after graduating from Thomson High School, he began his musical studies at Valdosta State University, with Prof. Douglas Farwell.
In 2004, while a junior at Valdosta State, Mr. Crenshaw entered the Eastern Trombone Workshop National Jazz Solo Competition. The trip to the Washington, D.C., competition was Mr. Crenshaw's first solo plane ride. He made it to the finals, competing against an Augusta musician who was studying at the Julliard School of Music in New York and another young man from the Manhattan School of Music. The experience was one that Mr. Crenshaw will always remember.
"We each had to play three tunes," Mr. Crenshaw recalled. "Mike Dees from Augusta went first. I was second and Matt was last. Mike did a very good job. I really liked what he did, what he brought to the table. After listening to him, I knew I had to concentrate on what I had to do. I played and then Matt played. I felt pretty good about what I did. They announced the winner and my name came across their lips. The first thing I did was to say â€˜Thank you, Jesus.' Then, I couldn't believe I won. Wow! Here I am a small-town boy competing against the big boys. It was an experience that really got me going. I saw that all my hard work was paying off. It was a great thing for me to do."
That competition win helped Mr. Crenshaw get a little more notice from jazz musicians and teachers all over the country. After graduating from VSU in 2005, Mr. Crenshaw - newly married to his middle school sweetheart, Melody Crawford - moved to Saint Albans, N.Y., and began the jazz studies program at Julliard. During his first year at Julliard, Mr. Crenshaw sat in on an improvisation master class led by Wynton Marsalis and Victor Goines.
In the class that day, Mr. Marsalis asked the music majors to demonstrate the playing of jazz great Louis Armstrong. Mr. Crenshaw said the students were hesitant and were kind of shell-shocked because of Mr. Marsalis' presence.
"I just opened my mouth up and said, â€˜Maybe I can't play like Louis, but I can scat like him,'" Mr. Crenshaw said. "So I started scatting a few bars of Armstrong's Hotter Than That. I glanced over and saw the looks on the faces of Marsalis and Goins, and they were kinda' impressed that this young guy could get the sound."
That class performance led to Mr. Crenshaw substituting on some gigs with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is comprised of 15 of the finest jazz soloists and ensemble players today, and has been the Jazz at Lincoln Center resident orchestra for more than 12 years. Mr. Crenshaw played on a couple of important gigs with the orchestra and was eventually asked to join the group full time. Luckily, Julliard and JLCO worked together to make sure Mr. Crenshaw could do both - play with the orchestra of his dreams and complete his master's degree. Mr. Crenshaw received his degree from Julliard in jazz studies and is now in his third season with Jazz at Lincoln Center.
"Being a part of the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra is quite an experience for me," he said. "I have never been in a band where I had to play my hardest every night ...cause everyone in the band can play.
"When you get up on that bandstand, you just let everything out. It's a joy everyday to play with them, to listen to them, to learn from them."
In a very short period of time, Mr. Crenshaw has worked with the likes of Gerald Wilson, Marcus Printup, Vincent Gardner, Wycliffe Gordon, Jiggs Whigham, Carl Allen, Victor Goines, Marc Cary, Walter Blanding, Wessell Anderson, Cassandra Wilson, Eric Reed, and many others. And, of course, Mr. Marsalis.
On the bandstand, Mr. Crenshaw sits right in front of Mr. Marsalis.
"I always say I have the best seat in the house in the band because I am sitting right in front of Wynton," he said. "It's always a pleasure to hear him and to hear his approach to the trumpet and to jazz in general. Wynton is quite a guy, quite a musician. He is a humble guy and a very serious musician."
Mr. Crenshaw , his wife, Melody, and their six-month-old daughter, Jazzlyn, moved a couple of weeks ago to Morrow, Ga., just outside of Atlanta. Mr. Crenshaw said that he is just a plane ride away from New York City and all of the rehearsals and concerts that he will play in the coming seasons with the JLCO.
But even better, he is close to his family.
"The grandmas have got to be near the baby, and we wanted a quieter place to raise a family," he said.