Band History

As Spyro Gyra contemplates milestones to its storied career, it’s tempting to fall back on the Grateful Dead lyric, “What a long strange trip it’s been” to describe it. During that time, they have performed over five thousand shows, released thirty albums (not counting “Best Of…” compilations) selling over ten million albums while also achieving one platinum and two gold albums. These milestones include the band's fortieth anniversary in 2014 and thirty-five years since their breakthrough Morning Dance album, which introduced them to the world. They show little sign of wanting to slow down either, gaining Grammy® nominations for four of their albums released in this century.

Born in Brooklyn, bandleader Jay Beckenstein grew up listening to the music of Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker, Sonny Rollins and Dizzy Gillespie, and started playing the saxophone at age seven. Beckenstein attended the University at Buffalo, starting out as a biology major before changing to music performance (read classical and avant garde). During summer breaks, he and an old high school friend, keyboardist Jeremy Wall, played gigs together back on Long Island. Wall attended college in California, and after both graduated, Beckenstein stayed in Buffalo’s thriving music scene, where Wall eventually joined him.

"Not many people know it, but Buffalo was like a mini Chicago back then, with a smoking blues, soul, jazz, even rockabilly scene, of all things," Beckenstein muses. "After being confined to classical music for so long, it was heaven. I was in the horn sections around town, backing some great vocalists."

Spyro Gyra, whose odd name has since become world famous, was first known simply as “Tuesday Night Jazz Jams,” a forum wherein Beckenstein and Wall were joined by a rotating cast of characters. Tuesday just happened to be the night when most musicians weren’t playing other gigs to pay their bills. Around this time, a young keyboardist named Tom Schuman began sitting in when he was only sixteen years old. This young man, of course, remains a member to this day.

"Don't forget the interminable Dead-like solos we were taking," Beckenstein cracks. "We were the kings of self-indulgence, but eventually we earned our right to charge a quarter at the door. It was a complete shock when word of our psychosis got out and we started packing them in!"

The group’s increasing popularity – combined with the purchase of a new sign for the club – prompted the owner to insist that Beckenstein come up with a name for his band. “It began as a joke. I said ‘spirogyra,’ he misspelled it, and here we are thirty years later. In retrospect, it’s okay. In a way, it sounds like what we do. It sounds like motion and energy.”

In their earliest days, Spyro Gyra took their cues from Weather Report and Return to Forever – bands whose creative flights were fueled by a willingness to do things that had never been done before. “I believed that we were springing from what Weather Report did,” says Beckenstein. “I never thought in commercial terms. I just thought they were the next step in the evolution of jazz, and that we would be part of it.”

The first few years saw the group’s identity split into a dynamic live act and a producer centric recording process, borne out of the rotating cast of characters in the jazz jam beginnings. These albums were the product of the band and a great number of the top session players in New York. In 1983, Beckenstein made the decision to make the albums the work of the band members he shared the stage with night after night, only supplementing with occasional guests.

There were several personnel changes in the 1980’s, which slowed down about twenty years ago.  Julio Fernandez became the group’s guitarist in 1984 and, except for a short hiatus at the end of that decade, has continued in that position. Scott Ambush became the band’s bass player in 1991 making this the beginning of his third decade in the band. Bonny Bonaparte joined the band in 2006 making him the “new guy” at five years.

"When we first started," Beckenstein recalls, "a lot of the jazz purists got on our case about calling what we did jazz and now it's funny to hear us getting respect from the same people. Like, wow, what you guys did was so much more intriguing than some of the stuff they hear today… Art manifests itself in a multitude of styles and contexts. Isn't that why we started to play in the first place?"

In 1977, they foreshadowed the DIY movement of the punks of the 1970’s by self-releasing their eponymous debut album. Spyro Gyra was picked up by Amherst Records, a local label who then made a deal for subsequent albums to go to Infinity Records, a label owned by MCA Records. After gaining Infinity its only gold (soon to be platinum) record with Morning Dance, Infinity folded and the group was picked up by MCA Records. There they stayed until MCA acquired noted contemporary jazz label GRP Records. Spyro Gyra moved to GRP in 1990 and put out all but one of their 1990’s output on that label. In 1999, they released a single album, Got The Magic on Windham Hill Jazz. The “aughts” had them returning to an indie mode, licensing their albums to Heads Up International. Most of those Heads Up albums have since returned to the band as self released independent releases. 2011 saw them returning to Amherst Records in Buffalo with A Foreign Affair. In 2013, the band went into the studio for three days of improvising which resulted in the recordings that made up The Rhinebeck Sessions.

“My hope is that our music has the same effect on the audience that it does on me,” says Beckenstein. “I’ve always felt that music, and particularly instrumental music, has this non-literal quality that lets people travel to a place where there are no words. Whether it’s touching their emotions or connecting them to something that reminds them of something much bigger than themselves, there’s this beauty in music that’s not connected to sentences. It’s very transportive. I would hope that when people hear our music or come to see us, they’re able to share that with us. That’s the truly glorious part of being a musician.”

A Historic Reflection of Spyro Gyra
- by Jonathan Widran, Jazziz Magazine

In 1997, as Spyro Gyra celebrated its twentieth album release in twenty years, Jazziz writer Jonathan Wildran wrote the following history for the occasion. Although, much has happened in the intervening years, this piece remains a good source for the answers to questions about the Spyro Gyra story.

It must have been fun in the '70s, when young, developing musicians could play whatever came naturally to them, without worrying about tailoring it to fit into the parameters dictated by radio formats. When they played instrumental music, it didn't really matter if it was jazz, pop, pop-jazz, fusion if it was melodic and adventurous, chances are it would get airplay and the audience would love it.

Twenty years ago, long before the coining of the radio-generated buzzwords "New Adult Contemporary" or "Smooth jazz", Spyro Gyra was jamming, having a grand old time creating their own instrumental hybrid, incorporating elements of R&B, Latin, Brazilian whatever struck their collective fancy into an infectious sound which just coincidentally became a forerunner of today's popular style.

Here in 1997, with their latest album 20/20 marking the amazing feat of their 20th release in 20 years, we can view their remarkable output as a true contemporary jazz legacy. Bandleader and saxman Jay Beckenstein can look back and remember a time when he and keyboardist Jeremy Wall were just jamming for fun. He can marvel at the unexpected resulting success just as we all can, but rest on his laurels? Not even close. A few listens to that still restless, still evolving and ever exciting sense of adventure on their past few albums (1994's Dreams Beyond Control, 1995's Love & Other Obsessions, 1996's Heart of the Night, and the new 20/20) makes it clear that, even after all this time, Spyro is still a vital force in the world they helped create.

Aside from one of the most amazing live shows in instrumental music and killer, killer songs, Spyro Gyra endures as an audience favorite because they created an original style that sounded like nothing that came before it, remarks Art Good, creator and host of the popular, nationally syndicated Jazz Trax show, who recalls first playing their breakthrough hits "Morning Dance" and "Shaker Song" as a mainstream AC deejay in the late 70's.
Whatever Jay had inside him, whatever sort of influences led him to this smooth mixture of styles, it came out as an original voice. Not many artists can honestly say they've never copied anyone, but Spyro Gyra can."

Accordingly, whether he intended to be a sax god or not, Beckenstein's inimitable sax style has led him to become somewhat of an elder statesman in smooth jazzdom, his influence touching up and coming performers with the same overall impact as Grover Washington Jr. and David Sanborn. Boney James, one of the genre icons with top-selling silky sax albums like Backbone and Seduction, recalls pulling the car over and calling jazz station KKGO in Los Angeles the first time he heard "Morning Dance". "In my late teens, I was into Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and Jeff Lorber at the time, but I'd never heard anything like that before," he reflects. "For a young sax player trying to find his way and figure out how to integrate my love for pop, soul and jazz, learning to play fusion was a bit complicated at the time. Spyro Gyra combined accessible pop qualities with happy uplifting tones, bringing together elements of jazz, Latin and R&B effortlessly and unconsciously. What they're doing with electric jazz and unique instrumentation has always had a timeless quality to me. I bought their first record, danced around my bedroom, picked up the sax, played along and never looked back!"

Beckenstein hears tributes like that, shakes his head and happily realizes that despite the long history, there is no clear end in sight to the magic that is Spyro Gyra. "What could be better than this?" he muses. "We still get to play music that our hearts are involved in, untainted by the world around us."

Getting Boney James to boogie in his dorm and setting the instrumental world ablaze were the furthest things from Beckenstein's mind in Buffalo circa 1974 when he and keyboardist Jeremy Wall developed their little ensemble on off nights from the gigs that paid real money. Born in Brooklyn in 1951 to an opera singing mother and a dad who had practically every old jazz 78 in existence, Beckenstein grew up on Charlie Parker, Lester Young and "every jazz record made before 1950." Calling his background "generational" (i.e., Motown, Beatles, jazz), he gravitated first to R&B, playing with enlisted soldiers on the army base nearby in Germany where the Beckensteins moved his senior year. He had met Wall a few years earlier, and, later, back in the States, the two spent summers in college playing outdoor concerts together. "It was a free time then, and we did a cross fertilization of Ornette Coleman, Grateful Dead and The Stones, a rock band with horns," Wall laughs.

Though Wall was out in California studying music at Cal Arts and Beckenstein was experimenting with avant-garde and classical sax, piano and clarinet at the State U of New York in Buffalo, the two knew they would eventually join forces. It happened not long after both graduated, when Wall moved to Buffalo and they starting their pro careers clubbing around town with some of the city's hottest R&B and blues acts. "Not many people know it, but Buffalo was like a mini Chicago back then, with a smoking blues, soul, jazz, even rockabilly scene, of all things," Beckenstein muses. "After being confined to classical music for so long, it was heaven. I was in the horn sections around town, backing some great vocalists."

Spyro Gyra (a misspelling of spirogira, a scientific term Beckenstein jokingly gave a club owner as the group's name) began life on an off-night, when he and Wall set up on stage at Jack Daniels and began fooling around with instrumental music, tossing in everything from Earth, Wind & Fire and Marvin Gaye to Weather Report and the Miles Davis records Beckenstein remembered fondly from high school. Instrumental covers of R&B tunes were all the rage, and the Beckenstein/Wall experience combined those with a few originals, just for fun. In Wall's words, their sound was a real "gutbucket of rhythmic tradition. We did simple music and esoteric stuff. It all came together, this oddball mix, until we found a middle ground, our own groove."

"Don't forget the interminable Dead-like solos we were taking," Beckenstein cracks. "We were the kings of self-indulgence, but eventually we earned our right to charge a quarter at the door. It was a complete shock when word of our psychosis got out and we started packing them in!"

The overall vibe of the band evolved into a more focused ideal when then teenager Tom Schuman joined the band as second keyboardist (Wall left the live band in 1978, but has been assistant producer and written tracks for every album since). Beckenstein knew they were onto something, but wasn't sure what just yet. During the day, he turned his attention to the production end of things, and partnered up to do production with Richard Calandra of the local band The Posse. Using insurance money from Calandra's recent auto accident, Beckenstein and Calandra formed a company to record hot, developing local R&B and folk acts, and bought blocks of studio time to sell to these acts. One of them was future funk "Super Freak" superstar Rick James, whose first album featured Beckenstein in the horn section. In return, James helped fund Spyro Gyra's first album.

Because the band's rep in Buffalo was strong enough to elicit local airplay, Beckenstein had the idea to capitalize on listener response in Buffalo, Cleveland and Rochester, pressed 500 records himself and started selling them out of the trunk of his car. Then the band put together a commercial for a local TV station and started selling more and more. "When I listen to that recording, I hear seeds of the music that made us popular," Beckenstein says. "It was pretty innovative at the time, I guess, a strange but still accessible blend of jazz, R&B and even Caribbean music. It's funny how people didn't know what to make of it then, and now it's so ubiquitous."

The Caribbean sound came with the help of vibes and marimba master Dave Samuels, a New York city musician who was playing in town in a local club date. Beckenstein thought he could add a tropical effect to "Shaker Song." "I didn't know who they were, but I heard what they were doing, and realized that my sound and personality would be comfortable in that setting," recalls Samuels. "As they became a recording entity and then a popular national act, they'd call me to contribute year after year, doing studio work and occasional dates till I finally joined their touring ensemble full time in 1983." He stopped touring with them in 1993, but like Wall, still contributes to each album.

An early obstacle on their road was Elvis' death, because every record plant in the country was churning out The King and had no time to keep pressing funky jazz stuff. But Spyro stuck it out and soon caught the attention of Lenny Silver, who owned a local record store chain as well as Amherst Records. He offered them a distribution deal, and the first album went on to sell 70,000 units. Silver transferred the deal to MCA/Infinity, and in 1979, Morning Dance, the album and the single, went through the roof. Boney James started dancing along with the other million or so people who eventually bought the album. "It was something in the alignment of the stars," Beckenstein laughs. "We were on a new label, and they really focused their resources on promoting us. Radio was open-minded at the time, but we never could have imagined that success. For whatever reason, 'Morning Dance' for all its happy, bright and tropical sweetness, became a classic, and touched a public nerve. Best of all, there were so many other textures on that album, listeners knew we were far from one dimensional."

Though their subsequent success ensured that they'd be anything but one hit wonders, that song was like Chuck Mangione's "Feels So Good" the trademark, must-play track both live and on the radio. And now, twenty years later, Spyro Gyra's audience still wants to hear the tune that endeared them to the band. Or, as Dave Samuels adds, "Longtime fans love to come back and hear what reminds them of a certain period of their lives. They connect with it now as they did then, looking back on a special evening or event. The music was always played at a high level, for sophisticated folks, and I think everyone always got the feeling they were seeing a tight, well-rehearsed ensemble who really cared."

While so many of today's smooth artists seem to have been created of the format, by the format and for the format specifically, Beckenstein is proud to realize that Spyro Gyra and artists of their generation were the innovators around whom radio rushed to create a formalized genre. Somehow, they responded to what Samuels calls the "Spyro Gyra Salad Bowl." "When we first started," Beckenstein recalls, "a lot of the jazz purists got on our case about calling what we did jazz and now it's funny to hear us getting respect from the same people. Like, wow, what you guys did was so much more intriguing than some of the stuff they hear today. Purists tend to be protective of their art form, and at first they didn't understand a band mixing in all these extraneous elements. "But," he adds, "the reason I got into jazz at all was the freedom it gave me from the strict structures of pop. It's ironic that it's more the jazz community who is insisting on certain rules or forms in order to be considered jazz. If that now means that you can't call what we do jazz, then call it something else. All I ask is to be judged not by style, but by content. Art manifests itself in a multitude of styles and contexts. Isn't that why we started to play in the first place?"

Spyro Gyra's is music whose core and desire was never for strictly commercial purposes. There was no calculated effort to sell millions of records, sell out concerts throughout the world, and inspire a whole new generation of musicians seeking an eclectic road of their own. When Beckenstein and Wall first started jamming back in Buffalo, they just did it because it was a blast, pure and simple. They made lyrical, jazzy music for a few folks at Jack Daniels, developed a high energy live gig, one thing led to another, and suddenly, instrumental music was never quite the same. The fun was suddenly not just theirs, but ours as well.

After twenty some odd years, when Jay Beckenstein takes a solo, then turns to his cohorts Julio Fernandez, Joel Rosenblatt, Scott Ambush and Tom Schuman as if to say, Are we having fun yet? Well, the answer has never been more obvious. Twenty years from now, when 40/40 is upon us, no doubt the sun of the "Morning Dance" will still be casting its rhythmic glow."