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Middle Eastern Promise

From Cleveland to Qatar, trumpeter Dominick Farinacci preaches a jazz gospel of human understanding

In 2013, Farinacci and his quartet perform at the international Dukhan English School in Qatar
Hit-making producer Tommy LiPuma, now 80, has been a supporter of Farinacci since the trumpeter was a teenager

Taking the stage at the Philadelphia jazz club South on a steamy Wednesday evening in August, Dominick Farinacci offered the small crowd a tongue-in-cheek disclaimer: Brace yourselves, he warned, for a confusing blend of material over the course of his set. It might seem strange that the trumpeter and his quintet will follow a Horace Silver classic with a Tom Waits song, or a tango with a Middle Eastern-tinged original. But that eclecticism was the point. “I like to bridge different genres and generations,” he said.

As it turns out, that’s more than an explanation for Farinacci’s wide-ranging tastes; it’s a mission statement, one that he’s carried into the educational arena, from his hometown of Cleveland to the cities of the Arab world. Most of the music he performed that night in Philly came from Farinacci’s latest release, Short Stories (Mack Avenue), recorded at the Tommy LiPuma Center for Creative Arts with the involvement of more than 800 college, high school and middle school students. The album was in part inspired by Farinacci’s stint as the first-ever Global Ambassador to Jazz at Lincoln Center, during which he spent nearly two years in Doha, Qatar. Onstage, in a dry deadpan, he referred to that city as “the jazz capital of the world.”

Quips aside, Farinacci takes his educational opportunities very seriously. “The importance of music education cannot be overestimated,” he said in the club’s shoebox of a dressing room just before his show. “Whether a student ends up being a professional musician or not isn’t the point. Getting students involved in music and the arts early on is just so incredibly invaluable. Education is in the DNA of jazz. It’s an oral art form; it’s all about learning what you learn and then figuring out how to share that gift with the younger generation.”

Pausing for a moment, he added, “And soon the younger generation comes and takes all your gigs.”

At 33, Farinacci still has some time before he needs to worry about getting shouldered aside for a newer model. Not that he’s helping his case, though. Through the production of Short Stories he gave hundreds of students a crash course in the professional recording process, and in his role as Global Ambassador he introduced jazz to young listeners in a culture where the music is largely unfamiliar. In both cases he’s paved the way for burgeoning musicians to follow his own path to success, even in places where access to jazz is limited or nonexistent.

“The thing that really helped us to navigate the challenges was the fact that it was jazz, which is a really inclusive music that’s all about celebrating different cultures,” Farinacci explained. “Wherever we are in the world, we just try to find those common connectors that everyone can relate to. I was never a fan, on the educational or performance side, of going around saying, ‘This is my shit. Dig it, and if you don’t like it, that’s a problem with you.’ That’s [antithetical] to the spirit of jazz. The most important thing to me is to be able to embrace students, or embrace an audience, and help take them on a journey to pique their interest in the music.”

Jazz at Lincoln Center and its artistic director, Wynton Marsalis, have long been important to Farinacci’s career. The trumpeter’s high school band opened for Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at Cleveland’s Tri-C JazzFest, the annual event hosted by Cuyahoga Community College, where Farinacci began his college studies. Marsalis later encouraged him to move to New York to attend Juilliard, in the inaugural year of the school’s jazz studies program. He eventually became one of the first artists to perform at the new JALC club in Doha, when it opened in 2012; a little over a year later, he returned to the region as Global Ambassador.

Asked what that title entailed, Farinacci said, “We kind of figured it out as we went along. It was such a brand-new environment, so it was like a jazz improvisation. The biggest challenge was that playing music isn’t really ingrained in their culture, so the idea of musical education in schools out there is a foreign thing. We had really interesting conversations, and were able to build a wonderful audience of people from my generation coming out to the club every night and checking out the music, a lot of them hearing jazz for the first time. But it was really a work-in-progress from the time we got out there.”

During his time in Doha, Farinacci arranged and hosted a variety of educational activities for both local and expatriate students from around the world. He visited colleges in both Doha and nearby Abu Dhabi, and organized a student concert series at Qatar Music Academy. He also had the opportunity to merge his educational and performance efforts, organizing and playing at a two-city “Journeys in Jazz” festival between Abu Dhabi and Doha; collaborating with regional musicians, including the Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra; and hosting a jazz concert series at the Museum of Islamic Art. Most important, he built an education program organically, through his interactions with the local population rather than trying to impose a predetermined structure.

“Over the years I’ve been a part of a lot of programs that were being developed,” he said. “I was there for the very first year of the class at Juilliard, so I got to see how a program was built from the ground up. Back in Cleveland, when the Tommy LiPuma Center for the Creative Arts was founded I got to create different education programs there. So in Qatar, which is one of the fastest developing countries on Earth, we didn’t go in there intending to put a certain program in place. I always try to look at the fundamental elements of jazz and apply that to building an educational system and a community for the music.”

With jazz being an unknown vocabulary for most of the students he worked with during his time in Doha, Farinacci found it crucial to connect with them in their own musical language. “It was a lot of fun to learn local melodies that the kids knew, and to play them in our own way,” he said. “That was the entrance point. There were challenges within that, especially culturally. But when kids get into music it’s a real special thing. You see how they light up, and you see the potential and the discipline that a lot of them love.”

On Short Stories, the evidence of Farinacci’s time in Qatar is most evident on “Doha Blues.” The track opens with Lebanese vocalist Mike Massy, who intones a melody inspired by the daily call to prayer that Farinacci heard echoing through loudspeakers across the city. But the region’s influence can be heard in more subtle ways as well. His recording of keyboardist Larry Goldings’ “Parlour Song,” the album’s closer, has become a theme song for INARA, a charity organization, founded by CNN correspondent Arwa Damon, that provides access to medical treatment for children impacted by war. The band’s performance of Tom Waits’ “Soldier’s Things” was made more poignant by Farinacci’s firsthand experience of a part of the world most Americans know only from headlines.

With his experiences in Doha fresh in his mind when the time came to record Short Stories, Farinacci decided to turn the entire recording process into an educational opportunity. Partnering with another mentor, the celebrated producer Tommy LiPuma, Farinacci entered the studio at LiPuma’s namesake Center for Creative Arts at Tri-C, with an ensemble including Goldings, bassist Christian McBride and drummer Steve Gadd. In addition to attending master classes taught by the musicians, students were involved in every aspect of the sessions, shadowing LiPuma and engineer Al Schmidt and assisting with mic placement, recording techniques and mixing. Journalism students were given the opportunity to cover the efforts and interview the artists, while filmmaking students shot the entire process for documentary purposes.

Since LiPuma first discovered Farinacci as a teenager, the two have been looking for a project to work on together. LiPuma, best known for helming landmark albums for George Benson, Barbra Streisand, Natalie Cole and others, proudly touted the unprecedented access that students received to world-class musicians like McBride and Gadd, but reserved his highest praise for his protégé’s prowess as an educator. “He’s a brilliant teacher,” LiPuma said. “He knows how to get through to these kids. He’s stern in the manner in which he teaches but [also] very delicate. It’s 180 degrees from [the film] Whiplash. We couldn’t be luckier that he’s still interested in doing things with the school.”

Farinacci hopes that the curriculum he and LiPuma devised for Short Stories will be replicated at other schools, even in smaller-scaled situations with less-renowned musicians. While the opportunity to observe the likes of Gadd and LiPuma firsthand was singular, the fundamental approach is one that can be adjusted to fit more modest projects. The fact that it happened at Tri-C, a community college in Cleveland, rather than at a high-priced institution in New York City, is especially exciting to Farinacci. “The beautiful thing about a community college is that it’s accessible to anyone,” he continued. “It’s not like doing this at Juilliard, which would be very closed off and meant for an elite group of people. You had kids of all ability levels getting to experience this; you could feel the genuine excitement from the artists to be able to have these students around them.”

While touring the world, Farinacci continues to work with his hometown alma mater. He recently kicked off a new series called “Spirit of the Groove,” an attempt to bring together Cleveland’s jazz and gospel communities. For the 2017 Tri-C JazzFest, he’s helping to organize a project commemorating the 50th anniversary of the inauguration of Carl Stokes, the first African-American elected mayor of a major U.S. city. “Tri-C always nurtured me and a lot of artists that came from Cleveland over the years,” Farinacci said. “There’s so much great and hidden talent in Cleveland, and we want Tri-C and the Tommy LiPuma Center to be the home base for the best talent of all genres of music. We also want to nurture young artists and engage students in educational activities. That was a great thing that I was very fortunate to have.”

In recent years Farinacci has also begun to speak on an even more personal topic, the connection between music and wellness. In 2011 his mother was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer, and music became a balm for the sadness and struggle he encountered when supporting her and dealing with her illness. He gave a TED talk at the Kennedy Center in 2014, about writing music as a way of getting through the experience, and has spoken about her illness and performed at the Cleveland Clinic Abu Dhabi.

Listening to Farinacci talk about his approach to each of these efforts, the word that leapt to my mind was “empathy.” Whether bridging cultural divides in the Middle East, granting access to less-privileged students in his hometown or using composition as a means of support for himself and his family in their time of need, his thoughts always seemed to come back to understanding people and their different experiences through the connective power of music.

Farinacci took a deep breath when I mentioned this. “Empathy is such a powerful word,” he said, “especially from my time in Doha. There was a U.S. military base, so we got to jam with a lot of the military bands that came through the club. We developed some beautiful relationships out of that, but you realize that you’re living down the street from a base where there’s so many soldiers who are giving a lot for a lot of people. Being in Qatar, which is a complex place, really heightened my awareness of the nuance and difficulty of the situations in that region, things we don’t see so much over on this side of the planet.”

Ultimately, Farinacci explained, his ambitions are at once modest and profound. “As basic as it sounds, if we could truly impact just a couple kids to say, ‘Man, I really want to play this music,’ even on a very small scale I think that’s the seed of helping to move forward a musical culture.”

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Originally Published