ELIZABETHTON, Tenn. (WJHL) — His jazz chops have taken him all over the world, but Justin Stanton’s always happy to play for a hometown crowd in his native Elizabethton.
“I owe everything to my upbringing in Elizabethton and the mentorship I had through particularly both my band directors, Rick Simerly and Perry Elliott, and also Debbie Gouge, who I was in her choir my senior year of high school,” Stanton said during a brief visit to News Channel 11.
The trumpeter, keyboardist and composer — a member of Grammy-winning jazz collective Snarky Puppy — hit the stage of the Bonnie Kate Theatre at 8 p.m. Tuesday leading a quickly assembled quintet of some of his favorite players.
Snarky Puppy sax player Chris Bullock and session players Mike Seal (guitar), Jay White (bass) and Adam Chase (drums) join Stanton for what he said will be an eclectic night that includes originals from all five musicians.
The group has played together, but barely. They did a show in more of a bar setting in Knoxville Monday night and got in a second rehearsal Tuesday afternoon before loading in at the historic theater that’s becoming a mecca for arts and culture in Elizabethton.
“It was a nice chance to kind of spread out and kind of get our sea legs on the music because this is actually the first time this particular group of musicians has played together,” Stanton said of Monday’s show.
He said the night should be a mix of following the songs’ basic themes combined with riffing from each of the musicians.
“I think there’ll be something for everybody,” said Stanton, who got an undergraduate degree at East Tennessee State University before moving to Denton, Texas and earning a master’s in jazz performance at the University of North Texas (UNT).
“There’s some instrumental stuff, some more jazz-focused stuff and also some more kind of pop and R and B influenced vocal music. So I think it’s gonna be a fun night – very eclectic night, for sure.”
From ‘Lizabethton to Lisbon: A jazz journey
Stanton said he couldn’t have had a better formative introduction to music than what he received in Elizabethton, where the ‘Betsy Band has a long, proud tradition of state championships and accolades.
As it happened, jazz trombonist Rick Simerly was teaching middle school band at T.A. Dugger when Stanton entered in the mid-1990s.
“That was my original mentor for everything,” Stanton said of Simerly. “Rick was just the most amazing musician.”
After getting a trumpet put in his hands in 6th grade, Stanton started piano lessons in 7th grade. Then came Elizabethton High School and Perry Elliott, who was a great motivator. Stanton made some regional and state competitive bands and “became more inquisitive about what sort of avenues to pursue with careers in music.”
That interest in performing for a living intensified when Stanton was at ETSU, where he got a general music degree with some additional strong mentoring sprinkled in.
Stanton jumped at the chance to attend UNT, which has a reputation as a breeding ground for jazz performers. It was there he met Mike League, a bassist who was just starting Snarky Puppy.
Stanton’s trajectory since the mid-2000s has been one of increasing success in the jazz performance world. He writes and plays two instruments with Snarky Puppy but also performs, records and writes with a variety of other original artists and groups.
Stanton eventually met his current girlfriend, renowned Portuguese singer and recording artist Gisella Joaoa, and has lived in Lisbon, Portugal the past few years.
A veteran of big city culture at this point, Stanton said he’s glad to see the revitalization of Johnson City and Elizabethton’s downtowns, and especially the progress at the Bonnie Kate, which was in danger of falling to the wrecking ball a decade ago.
“It’s a dream to come back kind of full circle to Elizabethton, come back and perform in a space that’s being repurposed as an art space,” Stanton said.
That includes a burgeoning jazz scene. The theater’s Sean Huber said the opportunity arose when the Johnson City Jazz Collective needed a new venue coming out of the pandemic after previously playing at Wellingtons in Johnson City.
“Bill Perkins leads that and assembles different groups for Tuesday night Jazz at the Bonnie Kate,” Huber said.
That started about a year ago and a dozen or so ensembles have appeared in the rotation. But Huber said getting a musician of Stanton’s caliber — for the second time in the last six months, no less — is a shot in the arm.
“It brought a lot of awareness to Elizabethton for the types of jazz and different jazz players there are out there,” Huber said.
The changes make Stanton happy. He said he remembers seeing “Mrs. Doubtfire” (1993) and many other movies at the Bonnie Kate before it closed.
“It’s cool, it’s inspiring and it’s encouraging to see that happening in this area to come back. It makes me excited about the future of this area and what it has to hold for arts and culture.”