Kalamazoo Recording Engineer’s Music Legacy Lives on with Jazz Artist Trust
When I first started running into John Stites back in the late 70’s it was probably at a jam session or record store somewhere in the Kalamazoo area. It might have been a Sunday night at the Pub in Richland, or down at the Whistle Stop, or maybe Flipside Records on the north end of the downtown Kalamazoo Mall. We were both trumpet players and huge jazz fans. I soon learned that he also played bass, and we called him occasionally to play gigs with the Kalamazoo Big Band. But even though he was a talented player, and had perfect pitch, people that knew him will tell you that he preferred to stay out of the spotlight. He found a way to create great music off stage when he built a little recording studio in a house at 220 Stuart Avenue, pictured below courtesy of Zillow. That was 1986. Fast forward 30+ years and John had left an incredible gift to this world. Thousands of recordings of some of the best musicians in Michigan and Jazz legends across the entire country let John work his magic at Arcadia Recording and that music lives on, even though we lost John two years ago, in July of 2019.
Now comes word of another incredible gift from John Stites. His trust, the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization was established after his death to promote live jazz performances and fund the John Stites Jazz Awards for emerging jazz professionals. John was involved in the planning, but the effort leaped forward this week with an announcement that the trust will partner with The Gilmore for some events.
John Stites worked as a musician and photographer and then landed at Upjohn Company in 1982, doing audio-visual projects for the pharmaceutical company. Bob Simon, a fellow trumpeter, worked there too and recalled that he, John, and other co-workers formed a small Dixieland group and played some gigs and parties. Simon, who still plays at age 93, was a mainstay in the Bobby Davidson Orchestra. “Al Lemon worked at Upjohn too, and he played piano and hosted rehearsals,” recalled Simon. “We played a few dances at Brook Lodge, which was owned by Upjohn at the time.”
Battle Creek pianist Terry Lower recorded a couple of CDs as a leader and nearly a dozen as a side-man with other artists at John’s studio. “John was a man of many talents, including recording studio owner/engineer, musician, photographer, good friend, and he was a super nice guy.” Lower said there were a lot of great things about doing recording projects at Arcadia. “The first thing was that he had a very good piano. It was a Yamaha C7, a seven-foot concert piano that he treated like his child. He had it tuned before every session.” Another thing that Lower and many other musicians have said is that Stites always made sure it was a comfortable atmosphere that helped foster the creative process. “There was never any pressure, and John took care of every detail. The only thing musicians had to worry about was playing.”
The Gilmore, presenters of the renowned Keyboard Festival, has partnered with the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization to start bringing major jazz artists to West Michigan starting later this year. The grants, ranging from $20,000 to $150,000, will be used by The Gilmore to cover artist fees for jazz musicians performing at The Gilmore International Piano Festival, The Gilmore Rising Stars Series, and a new Jazz Piano Masters concert that will be presented biennially in years that there is no festival, beginning in 2023.
Sandy Schaefer is a board member of the John Stites Jazz Artist Organization (JSJAO), which is a nonprofit 501 (c) (3). She said the partnership with The Gilmore was a logical fit. “John worked with the Gilmore for many years, recording their events from the beginning and even won a Gilmore grant to study with Max Wilcox, the famed classical music producer.” Schaefer said that Stites established the JSJAO and provided guidelines for who could apply for the awards and how they could be used prior to his death. “John wanted to help people who truly wanted to have a professional career in music and he wanted to ensure that audiences in southwest Michigan would continue to be able to attend performances by world renowned jazz musicians. He didn’t know how much money would be left to fund the JSJAO, but as it turns out, the endowment is substantial.”
Schaefer said the endowment will be used in different ways. “There are awards from $5,000 to $25,000 for artistic development to help struggling artists take it to the next level or for non-profit organizations who want to bring jazz events to Southwest Michigan.” The Board is also open to proposals for funding larger projects that are consistent with our Mission Statement and support the JSJAO’s core values.” That’s where The Gilmore comes in.
The Gilmore has already been bringing in major jazz artists for their biannual festival, but Schaefer says this will allow for even more established and “rising star” performers at the festival and during the in-between years. The first “rising star” performance is slated for this fall and will be announced soon. A major artist will perform next year.
“John’s favorite jazz pianist was Chick Corea,” said Schaefer. “We were exploring the possibility of having him perform in Kalamazoo." But sadly, Corea passed away earlier this year. “There are a handful of pianists of that caliber in the world, and we’ll be bringing in one of them.” Jazz fans can probably guess who that will be, but for now, it’ll have to remain a secret.
Schaefer said non-profit organizations have to be very careful in how they award funds. She said the JSJAO has contracted with a 3rd party to maintain the online application process. The applications will be reviewed and scored by a Review Committee composed of professional musicians. Then the board, which includes local attorney Bill McCarty and respected musicians Tom Knific, Ken Morgan and Doug Decker will name the award winners in late December.
“The only thing I’m disappointed in so far is that we haven’t received any proposals to date.” So, if you’re an area musician or involved in a non-profit that would like to get funding for a major project or event, go to the website and submit your plan. We’ll be waiting to hear the results soon.