Jay Rowe was in grade school at Calf Pen Meadow School, and he was already in a band — Darla’s Gang.
Darla’s Gang was named for fellow grade schooler Darla Lupica, who can still be found in Milford with her acoustic guitar, and included Rowe, pus Roger Bauer, who went on to become a Jai Alai player, Bobby Mason and Tim Hunter. Mike Hudd from the Rum Runners even had a stint in Darla’s Gang.
Heaped in support for their music, the young musicians organized a benefit concert when they were only in sixth grade — it was in honor of a student’s father who had died: Proceeds went to the YMCA in his name.
Darla’s Gang continued through sophomore year at Foran High School, though there may have been some changes in the lineup.
Those were the days, Rowe said, that helped steer him toward a career in music, days when home and school created a supportive, encouraging atmosphere ringing with notes.
And that’s why Rowe, now a professional jazz musician and composer, each year organizes a jazz concert to benefit Milford’s music education. He wants to give back to the community that gave him a nudge in the right direction.
Growing up, Rowe was living in a musical enclave of sorts: His mother, Mia Distasi, came from a musical family. A local teacher, she liked music and encouraged her son’s musical interests. The Wilcox Road neighborhood where he grew up hummed with a rhythm: car radios belted tunes along the streets.
“I liked the Beatles from the time I was three,” Rowe said. “I asked Santa for Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band when I was four.”
He started playing guitar when he was eight, and then took piano lessons from a legendary Milford piano teacher, Pat Neznick.
All the while school served as an outlet for his skill and fueled his passion — teachers and administrators encouraged him to play for school assemblies, and there were music clubs and activities. His sixth grade teacher, Leslie Frankel, one day suggested to his mother that she sign him up for lessons at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven, and that was another career defining move.
“If I’d been encouraged any less, I’d probably still be doing what I do now,” Rowe said. “But school made music really become my identity.”
He thinks Milford has a strong music program today and he is happy to be supporting it. He wouldn’t mind seeing more musical assemblies, though, like one that really flipped the switch on his love of music. He was in grade school when his mother pulled him from class to take him to an assembly at the old West Main Street School, where she taught. Willie Ruff was performing on bass and French horn, and Dwike Mitchell on piano.
“That was a life-changing experience,” Rowe said.
Rowe went on after Foran to earn a bachelor of music degree from New England Conservatory of Music in Boston in 1985. Since then he has performed and recorded with artists such as Marion Meadows, Nelson Rangell, Ken Navarro, Chieli Minucci and Special EFX, Chuck Loeb, Kim Waters, Pat Dinizio and more.
He performs regularly at many major jazz festivals in the United States and has also performed at festivals in Portugal, Mexico, South Africa, Norway, China, Japan and Indonesia. As a solo artist, he has recorded and released six CDs: “A Dream I Had” (1994), “Jay Walking” (1997), “Laugh Out Loud” (2001), “Red, Hot and Smooth” (2006), “Live At Daniel Street” (2011), and “Smooth Ride”(2016).
Over the past 16 years, Rowe has donated nearly $78,000 to the Milford school district, thanks to his annual concerts.
This year’s concert series will take place Friday, April 27, and Saturday, April 28 at the Parsons Government Center, featuring two separate artist line-ups.
On Friday, April 27, the concert features pianist David Benoit, saxophonist Marion Meadows, and guitarist Marc Antoine.
On Saturday, April 28, the concert features guitarist Matt Marshak, saxophonists Jessy J. and Paul Taylor. Nelson Rangell rounds out the group on saxophone and flute.
Tickets may be purchased for either – or both – nights.
The concert will take place at the Parsons Veterans Memorial Auditorium, 70 W. River Street, Milford.
Doors open at 7 p.m., show time is 8 p.m.
Tickets are $40 each for one night and $70 for both nights. The first 250 tickets sold are for reserved seating, and thereafter will be for general admission seating. Group discounts are also available.
To purchase tickets
Tickets may be purchased from any of these local Milford outlets: Café Atlantique, 33 River St., The Canvas Patch, 5 River St., Fine Arts Center, 40 Railroad Ave., and Arciuolo’s Shoes, 74 Broad St.
Online tickets may be purchased at 16thannualsmoothjazzforscholars.eventbrite.com.
By mail, make checks/money orders payable to Smooth Jazz for Scholars Inc. Send payment, along with your name and other contact information to Smooth Jazz For Scholars Inc., P.O. Box 3723, Milford, CT 06460.
For more information visit jayrowemusic.com or call 203-415-8878.