Keeping the Faith
'Father' Al and the Jazz Congregation

by Cindy-jo Dietz

DEEP INTO CAPE CORAL, near the intersection of Skyline and Pine Island, sits Geo’s. This evening the atmosphere is dimly lit and the crowd warm. The outside-meets-inside bar keeps the place feeling airy and tropical yet the decor still speaks to one’s Italian heritage. It’s a perfect place to kick back, eat dinner or just have a glass of wine and listen to some fabulous jazz classics.

Tonight was Father Al and the Jazz Congregation’s first performance here at Geo’s. Soon after their last set, I sat with the core members of the group: Woody Brubaker (vocals, keys), Jackie Lee Miller (vocals, guitar) and ‘Father’ Al Ferrante (leader, drums). Still high from the music, the guys were eager to talk about what it is they do.

So how does one go from plain old Al to earning the title ‘Father’? Al tells me he became Father Al after several friends felt compelled to confide in him. “I got the role of a priest, if you will.” The name stuck and lended itself well to the creation of Father Al and the Jazz Congregation in September of 2009. Al says he’s ecstatic about how successful the group has been so far. “We primarily play jazz and jazz standards, but also some dance, a little funk and ballroom. Anything that will please the crowd.”

Jackie jokes, “It’s a long story” as to how he got involved with Father Al, but promised to make it short. “I met Al a couple years ago through mutual musician friends”. They played together during local jam sessions, then decided to get something together.

I asked Woody what keeps him involved. “The money! It’s how I afford my house on the Riviera,” he says as everyone laughs.

Woody has been playing for 50 years, Al about the same, and Jackie almost 60. Jackie explains, “I got my start as a kid on radio, at theaters and National Guard armories, used car lot openings on a flatbed truck. It was a lot of fun. From there, I moved up to TV, then up from that.” He continues reminiscing about some highlights, “I was on the Ed Sullivan show in ‘58. I played in New York and California. I was with Jerry Lee Lewis for a while. I played in Nashville for a lot of years. I was with Ray Price for a couple years. When you play in cities like Nashville, you’d play in different groups with different people. You’d go into a club and you could get a job. The guy would say, ‘Are you doing anything for the next 3-6 months?’ You’d get hired and go on the road with them, bus tours.”

Al got his start in 1958 due to a knee injury. “I was a real active kid,” he recalls. “My dad said, ‘The only way we’re going to keep this kid in place is to give him something to bang on.” So, he asked me, ‘How would you like to play the drums?’ I said, ‘That’s great ‘cuz I’ve run out of pots and pans to bang on.’ My dad eventually sent me to the Gene Krupa Cozy Cole Drum School in Manhattan. I stayed there for a couple years. Then it was on from there. I played in Greenwich Village. I played all over the New York metropolitan area and moved on after that. I dropped out of music in the 70’s, but picked up again a while later. It was a great beginning and all because I had to stay off my legs for a year.

Woody got his start playing the accordion when he was 8, then on to piano. He then recalls how he was introduced to the saxophone in junior high school in Ohio. “I went to a presentation by the high school band director in our district. He had a shiny instrument I wanted to play. It was a saxophone.” He continues, “Back in the day, in order to get to the musician room, you had to audition and you had to be able to play several instruments. If you played saxophone, you had to play flute and clarinet — that was a requirement. Young musicians were brainwashed with this information. They’d say, ‘Oh God, if I want to be a professional, I have to learn all this stuff.’ So, that’s what I did. In the meantime, I started writing. By the time I was 19, I went to the Air Force, not only as an instrumental soloist, but as a composer and arranger.”

The Jazz Congregation plays in a variety of combinations — as a trio, a quartet, quintet and even sextet. I asked the guys how this effects the repertoire of music they play per each event. Al explains, “When we move into a quartet we generally move in with a saxophone player, or vocalist, or two vocalists, two horns. We can go with trumpet and saxophone. We can build on anything depending on what the job requires.

The group actually works with three different vocalists. Al explains, “Each gal is different in her presentation. They sing a lot of the same songs, but they do them in different ranges.” “And in different keys,” adds Woody.

When asked who their audience is Al explains, “We have quite a large demographic. Of course, we appeal to people who appreciate jazz music of the 50’s and 60’s, that’s our real fan base. However, we also have a dance fan base — people who enjoy funk and Motown as well.”

Jackie adds, “We play a selection of everything from bossa novas to 4/4 jazz arrangements. We do a little bit of this. We do a little bit of that. Mostly of that.”

When asked if the group has any favorite songs Woody chimes in, “There’s this one called ‘On The Beach’ and there’s an old jazz standard called ‘Back to the Chicken Shack’.” The rest of the group agrees.

Asked about which are some of their favorite venues to play, Al says, “The Edison Restaurant is a really nice room in Fort Myers. We just started tonight here at Geo’s Restaurant, in Cape Coral and it looks like a wonderful venue. Brewbabies, in Cape Coral was a really nice venue to work at. And of course, Hotel Indigo. We’re there for the Art Walk and Music Walk every month.”

But the groups most noteable performance of 2010 was the Make A Wish Foundation’s ‘Dancing With The Stars’ Ballroom Competition in Coconut Point. “That was a favorite of mine,” says Al. “Also, the Surf & Song Festival in Fort Myers. We were the only jazz band out of 90 bands chosen for that occasion. We were very privileged to do that.”

I asked them what they enjoyed most about their performances. Jackie confides, “It’s really about the camaraderie. I love the extemporaneous way we put stuff together. There are no real arrangements. I think that is what makes this a very unique band. So, you just feel each other out as you’re playing through the song?” They all agree.

As far as what the future holds, Al says, “I’d like to pick up as many jobs playing for the widest variety of people in our area as possible.” Woody adds, “What I would like to see is if we could work it in an educational situation, so we could show, not only younger musicians, but younger kids, what this music is. Kids aren’t exposed to this music because their parents weren’t exposed to this music. This music is just being lost. If we could teach about jazz and jazz standards, I think that would be a great direction to go in.”

As parting thoughts the guys tell me if they could reach out to that younger musician they’d tell him or her to practice and don’t get locked into one style. “The difference between a professional musician and an amateur is the same thing as a professional brick layer and an amateur. It’s not how well you lay the brick, it’s how well you can cover up your mistakes. When you play music, it’s exactly that same way,” Woody advises. He then adds, “I couldn’t get out of this business even if I wanted to. I keep getting slapped back in line. As long as I stay with music, no matter how much money I make, or how little money I make, or what my opportunities are, everything always works out.

Jackie confirms, “Music is in our soul. It’s what we do.” •

from the May-June 2011 issue

to right:
Woody Brubaker, A; Ferrante,
Jackie Lee Miller
He became 'Father' Al
after several friends
felt compelled
to confide in him.