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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."

Prior to the accident, in addition to going to school full time, Bethea had been working more than forty hours a week. At first he was almost relieved at the enforced time-out he would need to recover from the accident. "It was like a giant exhale. 'Oh well, I guess I don't have to do anything right now.' I figured I'd just enjoy the break, work out and get great abs."

He had no clue as to the enormity of the challenges that were ahead. After leaving the hospital, he went to a residential rehabilitation center in Jacksonville where he began to learn to live as a quadriplegic. "It was too early to know how much mobility I'd get back. I knew that others who had similar injuries were back up walking in a few months. I was hoping for that... but stuff didn't start coming back."

He credits his mother, Angie Bethea, who he considers his personal angel, as well as his family and friends for helping him through that difficult time. When I was in rehab in Jacksonville, there was a grand piano in the common area. My friends from school would come to visit and jam. I also had a keyboard in my room and I'd have my mom help me transcribe chords. When I wasn't in therapy, my head was in music."

He fully planned to go back to school as soon as possible. After being released from the Jacksonville rehab facility, he returned to his Daytona Beach home, about an hour and a half from UNF, since he could no longer live independently. His mom drove him the two hundred mile round-trip to UNF where he took classes two days a week.

That proved to be too much for newly paralyzed music student and his mother, so after that term, Bethea dropped out of school. He and his mom relocated to Phoenix where Bethea attended a specialized rehabilitation center that was dedicated to helping people with spinal cord injuries gain strength and improve mobility.

Bethea had to put his music aside for more than a year while he focused on rebuilding his muscles and learning new skills for independent living. "After I finished with the rehab and therapy, I knew I needed to finish school. I needed to see my friends. I needed to get my life back."

Back to the Future

He moved back to Jacksonville, bought a home and re-enrolled at UNF. Although he wasn't able to play any of his instruments, he was still determined to finish his Bachelor's degree in Jazz Studies. "I didn't know what else to do," Bethea said. "I just knew I couldn't stay sedentary.

"I focused on school and socializing. I'd been away from life for so long," he said. "Most of my friends were starting to graduate. I was trying to find myself. At first I was just going through the motions with classes until I started writing big band charts."

That was the pivotal moment for Bethea. Even before the accident he hadn't planned on a solo career. "I didn't see myself as a solo instrumentalist. Solo performing was just one part of the trade. Because I was good at theory, all the instruments were very natural for me. I could just pick them up, learn the fingerings in a little bit and I'd just start playing stuff, but I did not have the command of practice that I should have had, which actually worked in my favor considering the accident," he said. "I didn't waste all those hour practicing an instrument I can't play now. I practiced being a musician instead of an instrumentalist."

As when he was a child, the language of the music continued to fascinate Bethea. "I would stay up and play chords all night. The sound of dense harmony—multiple lush combinations of notes—just hit me in a way that I don't know how to describe. That was what really got to me," he added.

What better vehicle for channeling his love of harmony than big band? Back in his sophomore year, a friend had turned him on to the Joe Henderson Big Band. Bethea had been blown away by how different that band's sound was from Maynard Ferguson's big band or anything else he had ever heard.

"Joe Henderson is amazing! When I heard that I said 'Oh, that's what a big band should sound like... It was guys doing what I wanted to do—focusing on small group concepts in a big band setting with original melodies and chord progressions," he explained. "It was exemplary jazz musicians writing big band charts with all those concepts in mind. I was obsessed with that CD."

Although he had previously performed in UNF's big bands, it wasn't until after his accident that he wrote any big band arrangements. His first big band piece, "Days of Wine and Roses" by Henry Mancini was an assignment for a class he took at UNF after the accident, before heading to Phoenix for rehab.

"A lot of the ideas I had for that I'd gotten off the Joe Henderson Big Band album," he said. "It was a pretty solid chart. In fact, it's the first track on my first CD."

The first big band chart he arranged after returning to Jacksonville was "Outskirts" written by Gary Willis for the progressive fusion group Tribal Tech. "It was really popular," Bethea said, "and it became the nexus of how I decided to approach my own big band music because I could take the commercial—the accessibility of the music of that day that Maynard was doing—and I could also take the really heavy musician point of view like Joe Henderson had."

"When Mica came back, he had a renewed spirit," said trumpet player Ray Callender, one of Bethea's former roommates and the friend who had originally introduced him to Henderson's music. "He was ready to make up for lost time...for everything the accident took away from him. He had all these ideas about composing and arranging."

When it came time for Bethea to begin thinking about his Senior Recital—a pre-requisite for Bachelor degree candidates enrolled in the performance-based Jazz Studies program at UNF, Bethea decided to demonstrate his composition capabilities. "I probably could have gotten out of doing the recital because of the circumstances, but I really wanted to do something, so I wrote and wrote and made sure that I had enough music for a concert."

He composed two original songs and arranged five others in a variety of styles. Then, calling in some favors and drawing on the wealth of talented North Florida musicians he had encountered, he assembled the Mica Bethea Big Band to perform the music under his direction.

"It was a good show. It was extremely varied," he said. He recorded the recital concert and released a live CD in 2011. The Mica Bethea Big Band received glowing reviews. In 2012, he was awarded Downbeat magazine's undergraduate student award for arranging. "It was awesome," he said with a huge smile. The validation of his work spurred him to go for his Masters.

Bethea had indeed gotten his life back and was moving forward. Rather than focusing on what he couldn't do, he turned his attention and his efforts to what he could do. Bethea was awarded his Bachelor of Music in Jazz Studies in 2012 and then began working on his Master's degree, also at UNF.

He received his Master's degree in Jazz Performance with an emphasis on composition from UNF in 2016 and released another CD, Stage 'n Studio,the following year. As the title indicates, the double CD includes both live and studio versions of his work. The ambitious effort includes some originals as well as Bethea's unique arrangements of diverse classic and contemporary jazz tunes.

It's About the Music

Bethea is becoming well known for his signature style. Callender, Bethea's long-time friend and band member, has performed on all of Bethea's albums including Suite Theory, which is the story of Bethea's life to date.

"Honestly, it was some of the most challenging writing I've ever dealt with," Callender said. "Mica is a very intellectual guy. Harmonically, he's precocious...there are a lot of changes in there. For the soloist, it's very stimulating, but at the same time, very challenging. I referred to one of his tunes as a harmonic minefield!"

Bethea credits bassist, arranger and UNF jazz professor Dennis Marks for helping him develop his own distinctive style. "Dennis is an outstanding bassist. He played with Maynard in the 90's and with Arturo Sandoval for two decades," he said. "He has the most amazing ears. When I was in school, he always encouraged me and he helped keep the music spirit alive for me after I graduated."

In addition to his role as Bethea's mentor, Marks is also a member of Bethea's Big Band. "The thing I really like about Mica is that he understands the tradition," said Marks. "He's able to have the tradition be a part of his music and yet he's also in his own thing—pointing towards the future and bringing his own musicality to the table.

"Once you learn the masters, it's up to you to take the music a step forward and I feel that's what Mica has been doing by taking the music moving forward, not looking back, but looking ahead," Marks continued. "A lot of my favorite jazz artists are like that: Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter—always looking ahead."

Callender describes Bethea as a no-nonsense bandleader. "He's got such great ears. Like he can hear when the third trumpet isn't playing an entrance right or is a half step off in the harmony. Actually, it's very amazing how completely he listens in a big band setting and is able to hear every individual part on the level that he does."

"It's good that Mica always surrounds himself with the best musicians on the scene because you need to have those kind of guys in order to tackle his music. Even with the group he put together, it took a lot of hard hours in rehearsals to get the music to a performance-ready level," said Callender.

Bethea calls himself persnickety and Callender agreed that it is a fitting adjective. "He wants the band members to go for it, have a good time and really stretch and tell their story in their solos when they're playing," he explained, "but at the same time he wants his music presented authentically with integrity. He definitely demands that out of all the players in the group."

"It's so amazing how much he has grown," Callender added. "Every time he writes something, I'm hearing more depth musically. I've known him since he was like 18. Now he has matured as a man and also as an arranger and a musician. I love hearing his musical stories unfold."

Marks has also witnessed Bethea's evolution as a musician. "I feel the really great thing about Mica is that he has grown to be one of the great composers and arrangers of our time," he said. "I can't wait to hear his next piece. That's the great thing about a composer—when you find you can't wait for the next piece."

The Beat Goes On

In addition to his work with the Mica Bethea, Bethea writes for other musicians as well. Additionally, he has become deeply involved in supporting and promoting North Florida's arts and music scene, as both a volunteer and an entrepreneur—often combining the two.

A few years ago he spearheaded a successful effort to bring internationally acclaimed saxophonist Chris Potter to Jacksonville. Working with Jacksonville University's Director of Jazz Studies John Ricci and JU's music department, Bethea brought the award-winning Potter to Jax to perform a concert with the Mica Bethea Big Band. Potter also conducted a student workshop while he was in town.

"John did all the leg work and I fronted the money. I had the music ready so we did a concert with Chris Potter. It was a real concert—on stage and away from school," he said. "I loved it!"

He currently serves on the Board of Directors of Jazz Discovery, a not-for-profit organization founded by drummer, producer and arranger John "Lil John" Lumpkin, dedicated to introducing up-and-coming jazz musicians to the public.

The energetic musician also has a successful entrepreneurial side. In 2015, he and partner Deuble opened Cue Note Billiard Room in Palm Coast, a small Florida town located half way between Daytona Beach and St. Augustine and about an hour from Jacksonville.

For the past two years, Cue Note has been offering their Sunday Jazz Rendevous featuring vocalist Linda Cole with Aaron Lehrian on piano, Lawrence Buckner on bass, and Stefan Klein on drums as the house band with a host of visiting musicians who continue to surprise and delight jazz lovers who often travel long distances to hear some of the best live jazz in America today.

He and Deuble are in the process of expanding the Cute Note to include a dedicated listening room, which will serve as the permanent home of the current Sunday Jazz Rendevous and other events. "Our vision is to have a live music venue where groups as large as a big band down to a small ensemble or solo pianist can perform," said Bethea. He said the emphasis will be on, but not limited to, music in the jazz vein. "We'd also like to have some fusion, blues, and other complementary acts," he added.

"I think the local music scene is very lucky to have Mica," said Callender. "He is a huge advocate for all the music in our city and our state. Besides the fact that he owns a venue that puts musicians to work, he always comes out when his friends are playing around town. It's amazing the amount of energy the guy has."

Callender continued. "He's also doing another project—a small group thing allowing musicians from UNF and others local players to have their original compositions heard... it's amazing that he does that for the guys on the scene. He's giving us a forum to be heard and also recording it; making a product out of it."

Bethea's new record label, NFS Records, will feature albums by individual artists and groups as well as the compilations Callender described. The first solo album will feature Lehrian, who was the 2014 winner of the distinguished Jacksonville Jazz Piano Competition and, in addition to performing as part of Cue Note's house jazz group, performs with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra.

With all of the many projects Bethea is into these days, it's remarkable how he maintains his cool demeanor and takes it all in stride. There is, however, an ulterior motive to his efforts.

"We have some amazing, top-level talent here in north Florida. I go see and listen to a lot of groups and I really like what they're doing," Bethea said. "I want other people to know about the great music we have right here. I don't see any reason why Jacksonville can't become a tourism destination known for its outstanding jazz, like New York, Chicago and other cities."

Enjoy the Little Things; Muscle Through the Rest

Mica Bethea's future is full of promising opportunities and adventures. His spirited optimism and creativity is boundless, certainly not confined to the physiological limitations resulting from the accident that changed his life so totally.

What advice would he give to others in a similar situation?

"I know a lot of people get into situations where they say 'Oh, I'd rather just die.' Suicidal thoughts happen for a wide variety of reasons. But there are always things to enjoy. You can see a movie you'd like; taste the foods you like; hear what you like to hear. There is much more to experience in this world than our immediate goals and expectations." Bethea said.

"Once you're dead, you're dead. No matter what you believe about an afterlife—and I know there are many thoughts on that—but I'm pretty sure that once the afterlife happens, it's going to be totally different. This is your one chance to experience these things that you enjoy. No matter how difficult doing things may be, find ways to enjoy the little things and muscle through the rest."

The universe works in mysterious ways. Bethea has been both enjoying and muscling from his wheelchair for more than a decade now. He's doing what he loves and although he says he misses being able to play an instrument, he still becomes part of the music, whether he's conducting his own big band or listening to Lehrian do an outrageous solo during a Sunday Jazz Rendevous.

"If Mica had not had the accident, I don't know if he would have achieved these kinds of compositional and arranging heights that he achieved," said Marks. "This is a great example of taking a negative event in your life and turning it into a pivotal positive moment," said Marks. "I'm proud to have him as a friend, and to know him as a great musician. I can't wait to hear what the future has in store for him."

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