Veteran jazz man Jeff Kressler gets lifetime award

Don’t look for a merchandise table at the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan’s ninth annual tribute concert Sunday. This year’s honoree, pianist-composer Jeff Kressler, doesn’t have a new CD. Or any old ones, either.

“I’d never sell any,” he shrugged. “Besides, why go through the torment? I’d never be satisfied with it.”

Kressler, a journeyman jazz man and band director in DeWitt for 28 years, would rather play the gig at hand, make a dry remark and move on.

A sparkling, supple piano style and a deadpan, self-effacing manner make Kressler the least sensational of subjects. There is no such thing as the Jeff Kressler Trio and probably won’t ever be. But jazz insiders know Kressler as a protean talent who can pivot on a dime. One minute he’s writing an oomphing arrangement for the MSU Marching Band; the next, he’s conjuring delicate flickers of melody that recall lyrical jazz pianist Bill Evans.

“If I’m with a real traditional band, — say, Dixieland — I try to fit into that bag and sound like an old-time piano player,” Kressler said. “If I’m with a more modern group, I’ll try to sound like that. Sometimes it’s good, sometimes not so good, but it’s always changing.”

He never wanted to play jazz for a living. “You never know when you’re going to play,” he said. “Your income is determined by bar managers who know how to order beer, but not how to present an artist.”

Being a teacher saved him from all that. “It allowed me to play on weekends, get to know people. If you hang around long enough, you get to be known.”

Staying power is the least of Kressler’s skills, but you need to find a more effusive jazz peer to blow Kressler’s horn any louder. Vocalist Sunny Wilkinson has known Kressler for almost 25 years, and worked with him several times.

Wilkinson said Kressler’s quiet excellence makes him ideally suited as an accompanist.

“He swings along with you, lifts you up, fills the space that needs to be filled and no more,” Wilkinson said.

It took time for Kressler to settle into his lifelong groove. Growing up in Jackson, he played euphonium, trombone and saxophone, “trying to find something I was good at.” His clarinet-playing dad and violin-playing mom were both teachers; his dad was a band director.

Kressler took organ lessons as a kid, played in churches and still does it now and then, even though his legs are too short to reach the pedals.

“I like that medium, although it’s completely different from jazz,” he said.

He enjoyed his dad’s music, but he really got into jazz with a circle of friends at a school in the farm town of Merrill, Michigan.

“I had played jazz before, but I sounded like a white guy playing jazz,” he said. Drafted into the Army during the Vietnam War, he played in a band at Fort Benjamin Harris, near Indianapolis, home of jazz icons Wes Montgomery and J. J. Johnson. Between the army band and swinging nightlife in Indianapolis at hot spots like the Club 440, Kressler was exposed to a lot of music.

In Lansing, he spent many years accompanying singer Patti Richards at various now-defunct Lansing-area venues.

Kressler is retired from his school gig, but still very much on the scene. Kressler plays in a zone of concentration and serenity that gets more interesting the more you watch him. He isn’t the kind of musician who goes on and on about his art, but if you push him, he readily admits that playing jazz is a soulful experience.

“And I get paid a couple bucks,” he added.

JAMM Tribute to Jeff Kressler 2 p.m.-5 p.m. Sunday, Nov. 12 MSU Community Music School 4930 S. Hagadorn Road, East Lansing $15-25 tickets available at jazzjamm.com or at the door.