The Smooth Jazz Soundtrack

By Andrew Gilhooley / 411

If a poll was ever taken of  the definitive smooth jazz track, there would be no doubt that Spyro Gyra’s “Morning Dance” would be somewhere near the top.  The song, which topped the pop charts in 1979, made the band a household name and has been a staple of jazz radio stations ever since its release.

Almost a quarter-century after “Morning Dance,” Spyro Gyra is still going strong, and the band is touring to promote a new CD entitled “Original Cinema.”  The thirteen tracks on the CD showcase what Spyro Gyra has always done best – pushing back the boundaries of musical style with a fusion of jazz, funk, R&B and pop.  The current tour will take the band across the United States, then on to India and Thailand.  This Thursday, however, you can see Spyro Gyra at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.

Spyro Gyra was founded by saxophonist Jay Beckenstein.  Born in Brooklyn, NY, to an opera singer mother and a father whose love of jazz “introduced me to Charlie Parker and Lester Young before I could speak,” he began to learn piano at age 5. At 7 years old, Beckenstein was given his first saxophone by the music program at his elementary school, and played in school bands all the way through to high school.  He completed his high school education on a US Army base in Germany, where his father was working.  There, he played in R&B and rock bands on the base and in local clubs.

Beckenstein returned to the US to go to college in Buffalo, NY, where he studied music.  By his junior year, he was working at Buffalo’s clubs, again playing in blues and R&B bands.  After a while, he became dissatisfied with the scene, and on his nights off began playing instrumentals in small clubs with his keyboardist friend Jeremy Wall.  Over the course of the next year, a band evolved.  One night, a club owner asked the name of the band.  As a joke, Beckenstein told him “Spirogyra,” a kind of algae that causes pond scum.  The club owner wrote the name on a board, spelled “Spyro Gyra,” and the name stuck.

The band’s reputation grew in and around Buffalo, and it was not long before Spyro Gyra was receiving local radio airplay. At this stage, Beckenstein had paid himself to have 500 copies of the band’s first album pressed and was selling them at gigs out of the trunk of his car.  Eventually, however, Lenny Silver, the owner of Amherst Records, noticed the band and offered a distribution deal.  The album sold over 70,000 copies.  Silver transferred the band to MCA Records, and in 1979, the album and single “Morning Dance” was released, which made Jay Beckenstein and his friends famous.

With its ever-evolving sound and dazzling instrumental chops, Spyro Gyra has continued to entertain fans new and old for over 20 years.  Thursday’s show at the Kuumbwa promises to be jazz at its finest, and there’ll be one song you can certainly count on hearing!

First published in “411”, The Salinas Californian, September 4, 2003

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