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Mica Bethea: Quintessential Band Geek

Barbara Salter Nelson By

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There is much more to experience in this world than our immediate goals and expectations...find ways to enjoy the little things and muscle through the rest. —Mica Bethea
It's Sunday afternoon. Mica Bethea rolls into the Cue Note Billiard Room in Palm Coast, Florida. The 34-year old arranger, composer, bandleader and entrepreneur has arrived for Cue Notes weekly Sunday Afternoon Jazz Rendevous.

Bethea (sounds like 'buffet') is the "Note" part of Cue Note, which he co-owns with partner and pool guru John Deuble. The Cue Note represents the combined vision of both Bethea and Deuble—an upscale, state-of-the art pool hall, gastro pub, and bar that also offers live jazz music.

The Cue Note is filling up quickly. The doors open at noon and a diverse crowd of regulars gathers outside early to ensure they get good seats. Bethea greets patrons, musicians and staff members at the door with an easy smile, thanking them for showing up. His laid-back, unassuming yet confident presence belies the strength of the man's character and the struggles he endured to get to this point in his young life.

Confined to a wheelchair as a result of an automobile accident in 2005, Bethea refuses to allow his mobility limitations relegate his passion for jazz to the background. Instead, he has independently recorded and released two CD's with his own group, the Mica Bethea Big Band, and has another in the queue for a March 2018 release. Most recently, he started his own recording company and record label, NFS Records. And these are just a few of his post-accident accomplishments.

His story is not only inspirational; it also provides some important insights into why the future of jazz in America is brighter than ever.

Learning the Language

Bethea is the product of musical parents—his dad was a radio deejay and played trumpet, piano and sang; his mother also played piano and sang. Bethea began taking piano lessons at the age of three but didn't stick with it. "I didn't have the patience to practice," he admits.

It was the language of jazz, however, that caught his attention. "Music didn't really matter to me until I heard Take 6 perform on the Today Show when I was like four or five years old. I really liked that!" he said.

"I picked up the saxophone in sixth grade—then the next year I started teaching myself piano. I was really into the math of music. Theory and harmony came natural to me," he said. "My mom worked in a music store and would bring me books on theory. I never had any serious training until I got to college."

It was when he was in eighth grade that Bethea decided to pursue a career in music. "I realized there were all these prodigies out there—people who had been playing since they were five or six and I had just started," he said. "I knew it wasn't going to be easy, but I had no other special talents like carpentry, plumbing, drawing, or painting, so I just buckled down and said music is going to be it."

In addition to Take 6, there were three other major influences in Bethea's early musical life: Maynard Ferguson, Grover Washington Jr. and Stan Getz.

"My dad was into big band and he played a lot of Maynard Ferguson for me. Chameleon was the first big band album I ever heard," he said. "Since I played the sax, people would give me cassettes for Christmas and birthday gifts. One was Grover Washington Jr.'s All My Tomorrows.

"Grover was the father of smooth jazz but this was straight ahead jazz and it wasn't watered down. There are some pretty heavy hitters on that. Then, when I was in eighth grade, I got a CD player and the first CD I got was Stan Getz Classics. Those are the three I listened to the most."

"It was the improvisatory nature of the music that made sense to me. It gave you room as a single player to express yourself," Bethea said. "I didn't like it when I was in sixth grade and I was in concert band. I played tenor saxophone and my part was just whole notes and half notes. It was very boring while the flutes, clarinets and trumpets got the melody lines. It engendered me to want more.

"Music should be fun for everyone in the group. So I guess that's what appealed to me most about jazz," he explained. "Everyone's part was important. No one was there for what felt like superfluous reasons."

The Quintessential Band Geek

Once committed, Bethea pursued his music with a vengeance. "In high school, I was the quintessential band geek," he admitted. His primary instruments were the saxophone and piano, but he also taught himself to play trumpet, trombone, flute, clarinet, bass, drums and guitar to varying degrees.

After graduating high school in 2002, he was accepted into the University of North Florida's highly acclaimed Jazz Studies program, which at that time was under the direction of innovative saxophonist Bunky Green. "When I was in high school, I heard UNF's 10th Anniversary CD and I listened to that non-stop. Bunky Green was on there. It changed my life. I'd never heard a saxophone sound like that before. I became obsessed with it, especially his version of ''"Round Midnight.""

"To me UNF was that magical place. I knew that once I graduated from high school, I could go to a place where everyone else just wanted to play jazz music."

There, Bethea was in his element. Having previously participated in UNF's Jazz Camp during the summers, he had already established relationships with some of the other students and instructors. Unlike when he was in high school, at UNF everyone took the music seriously. He was now among kindred spirits. UNF became home.

"When I grew up in Daytona, I liked geeky stuff...I loved jazz, Star Trek, sci-fi and comics. No one liked geeky stuff so I really didn't truly connect with many people. What I really liked about UNF was that for once people were passionate about what I was passionate about were around me and I could share that with them."

He continued to focus primarily on the tenor saxophone as his main instrument. "Because I played the saxophone I was able to study with Bunky and that was like Luke Skywalker studying with Yoda," he said.

But that dream—and, in fact, his entire life—was put on hold in January of 2005 when his pick up truck was mauled by three semi-trucks. The horrific accident crushed his spine and changed his life.

Reality 101

"It was a pretty big accident," Bethea said, "and I was left a quadriplegic." He was in and out of consciousness for more than a week. "The first thing I remember saying was, 'I've got homework to get to Dr. Bill Prince, (Professor Emeritus of Music at UNF, multi-instrumentalist and member of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival Hall of Fame) for my arranging class, but the deadline had already passed by a few days. I had no clue."
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