‘We were always doing music’

Jazz community pays tribute to Beth and Al Cafagna


As the 1950s jazz standard puts it, “Spring can really hang you up the most.”

For Lansing-area jazz lovers, April brings one of the biggest bashes of the year, an all-star tribute to a local jazz legend by the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan.

They’re all celebrations, but this year’s is bittersweet.

Honorees Beth and Al Cafagna weren’t professional musicians, but they were a pitch-perfect duo for 52 years until Al died in summer 2022.

For many years, the Cafagnas took their names off the nomination lists. They had no interest in diverting the spotlight from others they felt were more deserving.

“Al just loved to support jazz, play his saxophone, sing with our dance trio and teach philosophy,” Beth said. “We were dedicated volunteers.”

But, as co-founders of East Lansing’s Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and longtime supporters of many local jazz events and music education programs, the Cafagnas were only ducking the inevitable.

When Al died, Beth softened her stance. A distinguished lineup of local musicians will perform, reminisce and give both Cafagnas their due at Sunday’s (April 21) tribute.

Among the musicians performing is veteran drummer Jeff Shoup. About a year before Al died, when he was too ill to travel, Shoup and other musicians associated with Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s Pub organized a concert at Corey Cafagna Park, next door to the Cafagnas’ house. The park is named after the Cafagnas’ younger son, who died in 2000 at age 16.

Al enjoyed the music from his wheelchair, insisting he was the luckiest person in the world.

Sunday’s tribute will serve as a reminder that for more than 50 years, Beth and Al were a unit.

“We did everything together,” Beth said. “We believed in the same values and sociopolitical ideals, and jazz fit right into those.”

When Beth says she was “born and raised at Michigan State University,” she isn’t kidding. She grew up living in student housing at MSU, where her father, Professor Thomas Greer, organized teach-ins, strikes and other anti-war activities during the Vietnam era. She studied English, education and anthropology at MSU and earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She grew up with big-band and swing music in the house all the time. She was ready for a serious immersion in jazz, and she got it, courtesy of a Detroit jazz enthusiast and political activist named Al.

The duo met at an anti-war meeting at MSU in 1968.

One of their first dates (“sort of,” she qualified) was chaperoning a busload of some 40 MSU students to Washington to march against the war.

Another early “date” was a protest at Dow Chemical in Midland against the production of napalm.

Their first non-political date was seeing legendary saxophonist Dexter Gordon at Baker’s fabled Keyboard Lounge in Detroit. Beth was underage, but Al told a sympathetic doorman she wouldn’t drink much.

“He ordered me a brandy Alexander, and we listened to Dexter Gordon in a smoke-filled room,” she said.

Al was born into a big Italian family in Detroit in 1932. He attended Berkley High School and Cass Technical High School in the late 1940s, when Detroit was a jazz mecca. Al knew many of the greats personally: bandleader Harold McKinney, guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Hank Jones, Jones’ brother Elvin (John Coltrane’s volcanic drummer) and on and on.

On one occasion, Al loaned his saxophone to Frank Foster, leader of the “New Testament” lineup of Count Basie’s band, when Foster’s saxophone was stolen. Foster was living in Detroit and was due to go on the road with Basie the next day.

Decades later, Beth and Al’s older son, Carl, played in the Basie band for the premiere of Foster’s original piece dedicated to Detroit.

Foster greeted the Cafagnas warmly after the gig.

“Do you still have that horn?” he asked Al. “That was a great horn.”

Al got a bachelor’s degree in anthropology at Wayne State University and master’s and doctoral degrees in philosophy at the University of Michigan. He joined the faculty at MSU in 1966 and taught there until he retired at age 70.

Listening to Al’s up-to-date record collection, Beth saw the connections between the Great American Songbook she loved — the swing melodies, foxtrots and show tunes of old — and the innovations of 1950s and ‘60s jazz.

“It was all connected,” she said. “We were always doing music and listening to music.”

For many years, the Cafagna Trio, with Beth on piano, Al on saxophone and vocals and Carl on drums and vocals, was a staple at East Lansing’s Active Living for All lunch group and many charity fundraisers. The trio played dance music from the big-band era of the 1930s and ‘40s.

“That was Al’s passion in life,” Beth said. “He didn’t improvise a lot, but he played those songs from the ‘30s, ‘40s, ‘50s. We probably have 200 songs in our files that we learned.”

In the late 1980s, the Cafagnas and two fellow jazz supporters, Kay Shapiro and pianist Sandy Izenson, formed the Mid-Michigan Jazz Society. The group hosted Sunday afternoon concerts at local restaurants, featuring local musicians and jam sessions with students. After some ebb and flow, the group morphed into the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan.

The Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, now a major regional jazz event, began humbly in 1996, when the Cafagnas organized a late-evening jazz concert  featuring local musicians at MSU’s Erickson Kiva to follow a production at the Summer Circle Theatre.

“We were copying something they did in Scandinavia for the summer solstice, where they started at 10 p.m. and went all the way to 6 the next morning,” Beth said.

With the support of the East Lansing Arts Commission, the concert evolved into an annual event, held in front of El Azteco or in the Valley Court area. By 1998, attendance grew from 800 to 8,000.

Al founded and ran the festival, with the imprimatur of the East Lansing Arts Commission, but Beth was equally invested.

After a few years, the festival grew to two days.

Beth, Al and other volunteers crawled all over the city, posting handbills and looking for donors.

“It was real grassroots volunteerism,” Beth said.

In 2007, MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker became the festival’s artistic director. In 2010, an official advisory board supplanted the informal, overworked team of “Al and Beth and friends.”

A synergy between the city of East Lansing, the burgeoning Jazz Studies program at MSU and private and commercial donors enabled the festival to host MSU-based national stars like Etienne Charles, Diego Rivera and Michael Dease and extend its reach across the state and beyond.

“It was just such a joy to Al and me to watch it grow,” Beth said. “We were able to bring nationwide artists, which I never thought we could do — the Jeff Hamilton Trio, Johnny O’Neal.”

A partnership with the Wharton Center took things to the next level, bringing in cutting-edge headliners and Grammy winners like Cyrille Aimée, Cécile McLorin Salvant, Tia Fuller and Esperanza Spalding.

As the festival grew in stature and scope, a key point of pride for the Cafagnas was the Education Stage, where groups of MSU and high school students got the chance to shine.

“Sometimes people would say, ‘I like the in-between groups better than the main event,’” Beth said.

Education, especially in music, was a lifelong priority for the couple, extending to their two sons. Carl, who will turn 50 this summer, is an award-winning Detroit-area saxophonist and bandleader. Corey played trumpet and sang in the MSU Children’s Choir and high school choir. When Corey died, the Cafagnas established an endowment to support jazz programs for students in middle and high school jazz bands.

Beth is looking forward to Sunday’s tribute, but, to her credit, she’s not crazy about the $50 ticket price. Proceeds from the event go to the Cafagna/Izenson Scholarship, which awards $500 to two local high school students for private lessons or summer study at the Interlochen Center for the Arts or another music camp.

“Even some of my friends can’t afford it,” Beth said. “But it goes toward the scholarship, and that’s good. One of the joys Al and I had was following the students, all the way from when they came in as freshmen until maybe their master’s. We try to be supportive, be encouraging, take their picture and send it to them. It’s kind of like having more children to follow and see them succeed. It’s really rewarding.”



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