JEFF COFFEY SPENDING HIS SATURDAYS IN THE PARK WITH CHICAGO
Proximity is everything. Front row seats at a concert, first in line, first-place finish, summit of Mount Everest, closest friend. Proximity defines a relationship between two things, highlighting the idea that closeness is something to be coveted. Traverse a specified distance and your life may change forever. 20 Feet from Stardom doesn’t sound like a great divide, but the division can define a life’s work. A professional musician, speaking to a group of students at a clinic last year, posed the question most of them were probably thinking as the theme of his presentation: How do you walk the ten feet from where you’re sitting to where I am? The answer came down to preparation, drive, and attitude. Actors and musicians often see greatness and accomplishment in reaching a particular stage. In a famous monologue from Shakespeare’s As You Like It, Jacques recites, “All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances, And one man in his time plays many parts.” That notion lessens the ideal that any one particular stage will make you a star. Jeff Coffey recently joined the rock group, Chicago, on tour for the summer. It was an unlikely call that led to a golden opportunity. He’d been listening to the music of Chicago since he was a budding trombone player in junior high. James Pankow was one of his idols. For Jeff, a stage isn’t necessarily a finite space. Sometimes, a “Saturday In The Park” can feel like an encore.
Jeff Coffey is a singer, songwriter, bassist, and guitarist from Eustis, Florida. In short, he’s a professional musician who’s spent his life playing on stages of various construction. His interest in music goes back to his childhood, and it wouldn’t take long for him to be consumed by it. His stepfather had a trombone in the attic of their house, so he started playing it in the junior high band program. At about the same time, he began “messing around” with the bass guitar on his own. In high school, he became more serious about both instruments, moving up to first-chair trombone and playing bass in various rock bands with his friends. During that impressionable time of his youth, everything around him was a musical influence. Not only did he enjoy the wealth of good music from that era – The Police, Styx, Journey, Night Ranger, Foreigner, Loverboy, Def Leppard, and Mister Mister, he was inspired by the particular talent of Sting, Steve Perry, Russ Freeman, and Sade. His love of performance was not limited to playing an instrument. He was equally drawn to the power of artistic interpretation in melodic vocals. His tenor range enables his pursuit of that passion. He would continue to develop his musicianship through dual performance of both, playing trombone with the marching band and as part of Walt Disney World’s student musician program, and playing gigs with his own band. By this time, he’d taught himself to play bass, so he could “play low and sing high.” When his high school band was invited to perform during halftime of a Superbowl, the magnetism of that environment left no doubt he would pursue a career in music.
After high school, Jeff received a scholarship to study music at Stetson University in Central Florida. The music program is classically oriented, with most students going on to teach or play with orchestras after graduation. Seeking a more well-rounded program, Jeff transferred to the University of Central Florida after his freshman year. He was able to take advantage of their fantastic jazz band program and traveled to Europe for two weeks with the UCF Jazz Band, participating in the prestigious Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. When the classroom experience proved no competition for the lure of travel and playing with a band, Jeff dropped out of UCF and hit the road. He toured extensively for years with a band called Isiss, eventually moving on to play with House of Dreams for another five years. One of his bandmates in both those bands was drummer, Tom Hurst, who he’d played music with since his days at Disney World back in high school. House of Dreams’ management was based out of Nashville, and they had a big budget record deal with RCA. As the chips sometimes fall, they recorded an album, but it was never released. After years of living on the road and the drain of band politics, Jeff left the band to pursue a solo career in 2000.
The beginning of the new millennium brought about big changes for Jeff Coffey, both in his professional and personal life. Being off the road, for the most part, meant he could establish a home base and define himself musically. His center of gravity was the Orlando area. He got married, started a family, and turned his ear inward to discover how his life in music had shaped his personal sound, like holding a conch shell to your ear to hear the sound of its journey. Through years of sun, storms, and ocean current, it washes up on shore and becomes a singular piece of nature’s art. Jeff had always been in band situations since he started playing music. This was the first time he would stand alone in the creative process, and he found the experience liberating. Being a solo artist meant he, alone, was responsible for the content, marketing, and management of his career. In essence, this boiled down to recording the music and putting it out there for people to hear. Over a seven year period, from 2003 to 2010, he released two albums – his self-titled debut, Jeff Coffey, in 2003, and Long Way Home in 2007. Florida is a melting pot of musical influences, and Jeff’s melodic expression pulls together all that’s washed upon its shores. It pulls you in to a time and place rather than a genre specification. Jeff’s voice has the power of the waves as they crash on the sand, and the serenity of a calm sea. His songwriting is more introspective than visually interpretive, thus bridging the gap between multiple genres.
Jeff’s independence as a solo artist marked his biggest growth period as a musician. Promoting his own music lent itself to diversity in the marketplace. He launched his own successful radio campaign, taking his songs to Top 40, AC 40, and XM radio. Over 60 stations were spinning Jeff’s music in regular rotation, with several songs becoming FMQB Top 5 hits. The expense of a Billboard campaign wasn’t affordable, but it didn’t stop Jeff’s music from being recognized for its unique sound and the strength of its songwriting. Off his debut album, “Carousel” was selected as Song of the Year in 2003 by the Songwriter’s Showcases of America. In 2004, he was selected as their Male Solo Act of the Year. His live, full-band performances at such venues as Hard Rock Live, House of Blues, and SunFest 2003, earned rave reviews from fans and industry media. In 2006, “Long Way Home,” the title track off his second album, was the winner in the Pop category of a global Song of the Year competition. His music has been featured in movies, video games, and television programs on such stations as NBC, ABC, CBS, FOX, MTV, VH1, A&E, Bravo, HGTV, Travel Channel, Style Network, Food Network, Animal Planet, and many more. For seven years, you could regularly find Jeff on the front porch of the House of Blues Orlando, playing acoustically and developing his vocal stamina through lengthy performances. There is, perhaps, no greater way to test an artist’s mettle than to perform in the raw, acoustically, with nothing to back you up but the sum of your musical history and individual talent. It can, however, be an exhausting endeavor.
Burnt out from years of playing and being constantly plugged into the process, Jeff unplugged in 2011. He took a sabbatical from music, and thought about how to get paid doing something else. He said he considered a day job, something he’d never really had since the music bug had bitten him, but he channeled his creative bent into taking an invention to market instead. He was successful, and it passed the time and paid the bills during the four years of his leave of absence from music. By 2015, he felt the weight of what was missing through the revelation of daily life without a musical outlet. It left a gaping hole that needed to be filled. On New Year’s Eve, 2014, he played a gig with some Nashville-based colleagues who encouraged him to reengage in the Nashville scene. He set up some meetings with publishers there, with the hope of getting a publishing deal for his songwriting. It was about the time The Nashville Drummers Jam was preparing for their tribute to Stewart Copeland and the music of The Police. NDJ musical director, and lead guitarist, Chris Nix, mentioned the opportunity and invited Jeff to participate as a vocalist and bass player. Singing the songs of Sting was a dream gig, so there was no hesitation in accepting the offer. It turned out to be a showcase of his vocal talent, without an awareness of the audition. That show took place in May, 2015, and led to his becoming a regular vocalist with the Tom Hurst Presents Loud Jamz series that returned to the Nashville music scene that August. Once again, Jeff is able to share the stage with his longtime friend and colleague, Tom Hurst. As available on a monthly basis, Jeff commutes from Florida to Nashville to sing a variety of songs on the Loud Jamz stage, in multiple genres, that suit his style and tenor range. He has also become a welcome voice at the bi-annual NDJ event, with recent tributes to Alex Van Halen and Phil Collins. The camaraderie he found amongst colleagues in Nashville, he says, exists nowhere else. A testament to that would soon present itself in a golden opportunity.
Earlier this year, Jeff got a message from his Nashville colleague, Chris Nix, telling him to expect a phone call from Chicago guitarist, Keith Howland. The band was in need of a temporary replacement for lead singer and bassist, Jason Scheff, while he takes some time off this summer. About an hour after Chris’ message, he got that call. He’d been highly recommended for the gig by Chris, Ed Toth (drummer, The Doobie Brothers), and John Cowan (bassist, vocalist, The Doobie Brothers), who’d witnessed his soundcheck rehearsal for the Copeland tribute. Impressed by his vocal performance, they’d passed his name on to Keith for consideration. Jeff was asked to send him three songs, via video auditions, which he would pass on to the band and their management. That audition earned him another in Ohio. He was auditioning to join the band on their summer tour, and was sent the entire two-hour show to rehearse for the audition. Upon arrival in Ohio, he took part in the final audition. They ran through the full-length show twice, with no breaks, with a Canadian singer performing first and then Jeff. Soon after the audition, he was offered the gig. It would be a quick turnaround and baptism by fire, as his first show was the next day, a private event in Findlay, Ohio. The first public concert was the day after that. It upheld the rules of preparation he’d always lived by as a musician – stay on top of your game, and ALWAYS be prepared. This lifelong discipline had prepared him for the fast-paced audition and immediate center-stage role, and this was no ordinary spotlight.
When I asked Jeff what it felt like to suddenly be a player in such an iconic band, he described taking the stage that first night. Standing sidestage, he said he looked up and saw the Chicago band logo lit up above the stage. It was surreal to take in his surroundings, fellow players included, and fathom that he was about to take his spot among them and sing their legendary songs. As a young trombone player, James Pankow (trombone, Chicago), had been one of Jeff’s idols. He was a founding member of the band, and had played with them since 1967. The fact that he was now to share the stage with this man was a dream come true. Lee Loughnane (trumpet) and Robert Lamm (keyboardist, singer, songwriter) are also founding members Jeff shares the stage with. The man who’d given him this opportunity, guitarist, Keith Howland, has played with the band since 1995. Tris Imboden has been the band’s drummer since 1990. In all, nine players round out the band’s full-bodied sound, often described as rock with a horn section. Their current show is two hours long, with a short intermission, and includes 32 songs. One of the highlights, “The Ballet For A Girl in Buchannon,” is a 14-minute opus with seven songs, including three of their radio hits. It’s a two hour musical presentation of Chicago’s band history, and the soundtrack to more than a few years of Jeff’s.
It’s not often you find a scenario where a musician gets to stand beside one of his idols as a band member. Perhaps a selfie backstage at a concert with one of your musical heroes, or briefly sharing the stage for a collaborative moment while playing with another band. Joining the ranks of an iconic band for a summer tour is a dream not likely to happen. Voicing such a fantasy during the high school years may get you voted Most Likely To Be Delusional. If Jeff ever had such a dream, he probably kept it to himself, choosing instead to work hard and prepare for it, should the opportunity come calling. Jeff Coffey was never handed a musical destiny that he hasn’t earned. Everything about him speaks to his professionalism as a musician. Whether he’s performing on a small stage in Nashville with a supporting cast of musicians, acoustically in Florida with no backing, or at a landmark theater with an iconic rock band, he brings the same preparation and delivery to each performance. Case in point, impressing members of The Doobie Brothers with your soundcheck! You have only to listen to Jeff sing, and watch him on stage, to know he deserves the proximity he now enjoys to an idol and this legendary band. Taking the stage at the Hollywood Bowl on July 4th, the lights from the Chicago logo cast him in the glow of music history as he carries the torch this summer, bringing their music to old and new fans. “Saturday In The Park” took on a special meaning when he sang it that night. With his voice and the lyrics to this song, he’s telling his own story…
If we want it, really want it
Can you dig it (yes, I can)
And I’ve been waiting such a long time
For the day
Visit Jeff Coffey’s website: http://www.jeffcoffey.com/
Follow Jeff Coffey on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/JeffCoffeyMusic/?fref=ts
Visit Chicago’s website for tour information: http://www.chicagotheband.com/
Chicago photographs by Kristy Duff Wallace Photography.
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