Piers & Lucy Playfair jazz up the Catskills

Jazz pianist/composer Aaron Diehl and Piers Playfair (photo by Lucy Playfair)

Piers Playfair realizes that he’s a jazz novice, yet that doesn’t make him any less a major player in today’s jazz world. Still in the midst of a highly successful financial career that has seen him shift from banking to investment management over the years, the cultured Brit has been working with his wife Lucy to turn their Catskill Jazz Factory into one of the Hudson Valley’s great new non-profits and granting organizations.

The Catskill Jazz Factory operates on several fronts at once: It provides residencies and a wide assortment of performance and jamming opportunities for the top new performers rising up to give America’s great artform new life. It is taking great jazz to local schools and local students to great jazz performances. And it is working to share the wealth that the Playfairs have been able to attract to their project by working to develop not only several large and small venues in their new hometown of Tannersville, but also a host of other spaces and scenes around the area.

Coming up on Saturday, March 29 at the Bearsville Theatre, the Catskill Jazz Factory is hosting the US premiere of Uhadi, an all-star group of South African jazz players who will be going on from the Hudson Valley to Lincoln Center as part of a special tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of all-race elections in South Africa and honoring the life and works of the late President Nelson Mandela, as well as the recent revival of Paul Simon’s classic Graceland album, nearing 30 years in age itself. According to Playfair, the music – to be presented in pre-show workshop format for local students as well as a Saturday night concert – matches classic South African township and mbaqanga musical beats with jazz chops, and highlights how the music played a major role in the nation’s anti-apartheid struggles of the 1960s and 1970s, when the all-white government clamped down on all jazz playing.

And in recent weeks, the Jazz Factory and the Playfairs produced Bard College’s first big Fisher Center jazz concert in years, featuring Westkill resident Chris Washburne and his Latin jazz ensemble SYOTOS; put on a classy Valentine’s jazz dinner with the Charenee Wade Quintet doing Rodgers and Hart chestnuts at the recently revived Deer Mountain Inn near Onteora Park; then presented the Benny Benack III Quartet last Saturday at Last Chance Cheese and Antiques on Main Street in Tannersville.

“My family background is really in the theater,” Playfair said, noting his father’s role as a Drama professor, his mother’s years as an actress and his grandfather’s heralded position as one of the founders of London’s modern theater position. “Lucy’s and my first project up here was the Orchard Project, which helped develop new plays by inviting cutting-edge theater artists up to the Catskills for residencies each summer.” That program is still running.

“Then I was persuaded by several residents up here that I should help with the programming of the new Orpheum Theater that had been revived as a 250-seat space by the Catskill Mountain Foundation…and I realized that to do it right, I would want something with a residential component so it could work as a means of building the community as well as draw audiences,” Playfair said. “Jazz seemed to be the right thing: It’s multicultural and has great demographics. So I got to talking with my old neighbor from the City, the jazz historian and critic Stanley Crouch, and he put me in touch with Aaron Diehl, a pianist who knew who the up-and-coming younger players were.”

The result was a first set of residencies, and a sold-out concert featuring three top young ensembles at the Orpheum in 2012. Last May, Playfair and Diehl put together a day of jazz classes within Kingston High School with Percussion Orchestra of Kingston (POOK) leader and Center for Creative Education founder Ev Mann, including a sold-out concert at the Ulster Performing Arts Center for local students. The summer residencies grew, including involvement in the Tannersville Fourth of July Parade, and several more concerts.

“My strategy is to make this a broad program, to reach out with generosity – I guess you could say like the Common Market,” Playfair said. “We keep working to broaden our appeal, branding ourselves as being synonymous with high-quality jazz, and bringing what we do to the greater community in new and different ways. I feel very strongly about working to get kids introduced to the music.”

Playfair has been coming up to the region regularly for nearly 30 years – first to the Woodstock and then Millbrook areas before settling on the Onteora Park area, where Mark Twain, Isadora Duncan and Antonin Dvorak spent creative sojourns in years past. He says that his sudden involvement in cultural projects has released an inner love of the creative that lay dormant for years.

“I realized, with my wife’s help, how much good could come by mixing good business quality to top arts talents,” he explained. “A lot of programs have great intentions but, run by artists, end up chronically underfunded and unable to build the infrastructure needed to find and sustain an audience – or more funding.”

Playfair speaks about building relationships among existing performance venues, presenters and other art organizations and artists. He feels that the Catskill Jazz Factory is building something new in the region.

“You need a certain flexibility,” he said. “Jazz audiences can sometimes fill a 250-seat place like the Orpheum, but sometimes it needs cafés or venues in other towns. What you want to do, in the end, is build relevance in a community.”

He notes the vital work that the Catskill Mountain Foundation has done renovating and building cultural venues, or Chuck and Susan Royce’s work creating first-class lodging and dining venues that the Jazz Factory uses for its residency needs. His wife Lucy has been integral, too – both as an administrator and in terms of the branding needed to get something off the ground.

“It’s funny how much I’ve come to adore jazz in the process,” he added. “It’s only 120 years old, but has its own classical repertory and yet is always new. The artform is at a crossroads. It needs philanthropy to support it – but at a grassroots level, because it remains a grassroots sort of art.”

Will jazz be his only project now? “Oh, we’ve been helping out with a Russian ballet school that’s also using the Orpheum here,” Playfair added. “And next year we’ll be bringing LAMDA – the London Academy of Musical and Dramatic Arts – in for a residency…” He paused, the sounds of his and Lucy’s young kids jubilant in the background. “I think we’re making a difference.”

For more on the Catskill Jazz Factory, and Piers and Lucy Playfair, visit www.catskilljazzfactory.org.

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