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MUSIC FEATURE: Mike Kaupa Quartet

Have trumpet, will travel


Update 2/8/13: Due to inclement weather this concert has been postponed until Thursday, February 14.

It's 1990, and after playing concerts in Italy and Spain, trumpeter Mike Kaupa is at the top of the Eiffel Tower looking out over Paris with a band-mate. "I turned to him," says Kaupa, "and said, 'All we ever did to get here was practice. And we're on the Eiffel Tower — woah!'"

Kaupa still practices twice a day despite his busy schedule, teaching part-time at The Harley School and giving lessons at the Eastman School of Music's Community Music School. His reputation brings him private students who have gone on to attend top schools like Berklee College of Music and New York University. He also leads workshops all over the country for the Institute for Creative Music.

But most area jazz fans know Kaupa as a superb trumpeter with the Dave Rivello Ensemble and his own quartet, which plays at SUNY Brockport on Friday.

Kaupa is soft-spoken, but don't let that fool you. He's capable of unleashing furious upper-register runs during solos. And, although he is a hard-bop player, he occasionally explores new frontiers, mic-ing his trumpet and putting it through a vocal processor pre-programed to add harmonies and effects.

While growing up in Buffalo in the 1960's the music in Kaupa's home was heavy on "West Side Story" and Frank Sinatra. He started piano lessons at the age of 6 but quit at 7. Then he fell under the spell of Leonard Bernstein and his "Young People's Concerts" television series. "I asked my dad, 'If I want to be a conductor, do I need to know how to play piano?'," says Kaupa. "He said yes, so I started piano lessons again." But he really had his heart set on a trumpet.

His school allowed students to begin trumpet lessons at the age of 10 so, when he reached the magic age, his dad took him to the music store. He can still recall a strange premonition. "I knew when the case was opened what it would feel like to play it," Kaupa says.

Of course it took a long time before he could play it well. "I was lucky," says Kaupa. "My brother knew some fingerings and I knew notes from piano lessons. At that age it's glorious. I'm playing a few notes; I'm playing a tune with my sax-player friend down the street. I didn't hear that maybe it was out of tune. I just stuck with it."

At 16 his musical world expanded because of his high-school girlfriend and her family. "I was so lucky," says Kaupa, "The Fadale family in Buffalo — they all played jazz." His girlfriend's mom had studied with Oscar Peterson and accompanied vocalist Mark Murphy.

"I would go over to their house in West Seneca. From the sofa to the stereo there was a trail on the carpeting. It was worn out. They played 'Kind of Blue' for me — Miles Davis — and 'My Funny Valentine.' Up to that point I was a fan of Al Hurt, Herb Alpert, and Doc Severinsen. They're great, but now I hear Miles Davis. They're opening me up to new music."

The next stop on his musical journey was SUNY Fredonia. There was no jazz program but Kaupa and other players started a band. "There was no learning jazz for a grade, we learned from each other. We owned it," he says.

Kaupa moved into a house with musicians in Buffalo where he could jam until 4 a.m. and make connections. One of those led to a performance grant that took him to Rochester, where he quickly earned respect. Eastman professor Rayburn Wright offered to let him sit in on some jazz classes at the school, including one taught by Bill Dobbins that Kaupa found particularly valuable.

Another significant educational experience came later. While he loves Davis' playing, Kaupa's main role models are saxophonists like Joe Lovano. "I like rhythmic playing," says Kaupa. "If I can sound like that on trumpet, I'm happy." When Kaupa met Lovano, he asked about the possibility of a lesson.

"He says it will be 50 cents. I thought, Oh, yeah, 50 bucks. So we go to his loft where he plays drums like Elvin Jones and I play for him." What did Kaupa learn? "He told me there's more to life than eighth notes."

Kaupa lives in Brighton with his wife, Diana Loberant-Kaupa, who works at Harris Beach, teaches piano, and is an artist. He still travels widely, including an occasional trip Europe to play and teach.

Kaupa visited almost every state, all of the provinces of Canada, Mexico, and Japan when he toured from 1988 to 1991 with the Glenn Miller Orchestra. But the biggest thrill of his career came from a phone call in 1993 asking if he was "free two nights next week." Ray Charles' band was between trumpet players and they had heard about Kaupa.

"First night in Toronto, there I was. The second tune had a trumpet solo and you had to walk out front. That was very exciting, knowing that Ray Charles is comping for you while you're playing a solo," Kaupa says.

Another time, in 1988, Mel Tormé joined the Miller band for a television special. "When they did 'American Patrol,' he said, 'Ladies and gentlemen, I'm going to play drums on this one' and he played better than any drummer in that band. He was swinging so hard. Toward the end there's a trumpet solo. So now I'm hooking up with Mel Tormé," Kaupa says.

Despite brushes with the big time, Kaupa appreciates the Rochester scene. "I tell people: walk through the entrance of Eastman, walk through the halls for 10 minutes, leave, and you're a better musician than when you walked in."

Besides, a teacher once told him if you go to New York your competition is Wynton Marsalis and Tom Harrell, so you'd better take an application for the post office. Sure enough, at a music store in New York, Kaupa ran into a trumpet player who was in Maynard Ferguson's band. "He was so excited because he'd passed the first round of tests for a post-office job," Kaupa says.