By Jeanne Sager
BETHEL July 18, 2006 Its being touted as a world-class stage, and this weekend, it will play host to some world-class acts from just five minutes away.
Thurman Barker, jazz percussionist and Bard College professor, likes to think that hes representing Jeffersonville when he steps on stage.
Sunday, at the Jazz Festival at Bethel Woods Center for the Arts, hell be doing just that, playing in a lineup that includes legends Wynton Marsalis and George Benson.
Raised in Chicago, Ill., Barker has been playing the drums since high school.
Joe Cockers drummer, Roy Robinson, put on a special assembly for the kids at Dixon Elementary on Chicagos south side.
I was so moved, that day I went home and told my mother I wanted to take drum lessons, Barker recalled.
She signed him up for classes at the American Conservatory of Music, and he didnt get to touch a drum for two years.
The director of percussion arts, James Dutton, wanted Barker to learn musical theory.
For a teenage boy who just wanted to pick up the sticks and bang on the drum, it was frustrating, but Barker muddled through.
In the end, the discipline and the ear for music that resulted allowed him to pick up the skills almost instantaneously.
When he finally began to play percussion, under the direction of jazz instructor Harold Jones, Barker took off.
He was learning so fast that Jones began to take his student along to gigs to watch him work, taking the underage Barker to bars to soak up the atmosphere.
Harold Jones had a very positive outlook, Barker recalled. He told me it was about the music it wasnt about the money.
Jones faith in Barker was such that he turned to the 17-year-old when an out-of-town gig came up.
Jones steady job at Hugh Hefners Playboy Club would be open while he was out of town, and Jones asked Barkers mom if her son could fill in.
There I was, putting on a tuxedo every night and going to the Playboy Club every night, Barker recalled. I was 17 years old, I was still in high school . . . I was backing up Edie Gorme, Lana Cantrell . . .
He recorded his first album at 17 and spent the year after high school graduation practicing eight hours a day.
He headed to college, performed around Chicago and decided to audition for the pit band for a Broadway play.
He got the job playing the drums in the band backing up the performers in the hit play Hair.
When the play closed, the Schubert Theatre company retained Barkers services.
Based in Chicago, Barker was sent to New York each time a play was getting ready to go on the road.
Hed sit in with the band, learn the music, and return to Chicago to perform with the road crew.
It was steady work for some 10 years, but when it ended, Barker was happy to move on.
I knew, if Im really going to make it, Im going to make it in New York, he recalled.
In the fall of 1979, Barker packed his bags for good and moved to New York City.
It was a tough experience my first year. I was unemployed for a whole year, he said.
By 1981, he was back in the swing of things playing steady gigs around the city. It was there that he met wife Lucette Ostegren.
The couple married, and when their son was born in 1989, they decided to get out of Manhattan.
They bought a part-time home in Jeffersonville in 1991, and Barker began applying for teaching jobs.
I applied to 100 colleges, and I got 100 rejections, he recalled.
But in December 1992, Bard came calling.
By spring, he hadnt heard a word, and he was out on the road with Cecil Taylor when Lucette called.
Bard wanted to talk to him. In 1993, he got the job.
It was a turning point for the Barkers. They left the city for Jeffersonville.
These days, Barker is still playing. He lives in campus housing while he teaches, but his family spends most of their time in Jeffersonville where Lucette operates Western Sullivan Massage.
Barker has his own label, UPtee Productions, which has produced four more albums.
Sunday he will introduce his new group on a national scale at Bethel Woods.
Trinity features Barker on drums, Patience Higgins on tenor sax and Lonnie Gasparini on Hammond B3 organ.
Barker said its the perfect opportunity to show not just Sullivan County, but the world, what Jeffersonville has to offer.
Its very significant that I live in a town with a residency of less than 600, and one of the residents is playing on a national stage, he said. Im representing Jeffersonville . . . and this festival happens to be five minutes from my town!
I think [Bethel Woods] is very special for this community, Barker continued. I feel our community is ready to support a performing arts festival, and now we can hear first-class music and first-class art without driving three hours.
Jazz guitarist James Emery, a Warwick musician who will also be playing this weekend, drove an hour to Bethel Woods to see the New York Philharmonic perform on opening night.
Emery, who has shared the stage with Barker and performed worldwide (in fact, several of his albums were produced by a German label), said the center is on par with the best of places.
Examining the rich woods in the pavilion, Emery is jazzed about the acoustics and itching to get up on the stage to play.
Hes excited, he said, to reach a new audience and play at such an amazing facility.
They spared no expense in the design, he said.
Emery and his trio, including saxophonist Rob DeBellis and bassist Jay Anderson, will play Bethel Woods on Saturday.
Hell open for Benson, the John Pizzarelli Big Band and more.
The following day, Barker will take the stage that will also play host to Marsalis, Dianne Reeves and New Orleans Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Tickets are still available for both days of the festival. They can be purchased at Steves Music Center in Rock Hill or at the box office at Bethel Woods. For more information, visit www.bethelwoodslive.org.