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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

A Young Jazz Pianist Who Plays With ‘Passion and Energy’

By Philip Walzer

Joel Sanford started playing piano when he was 3. In fifth grade, he decided he wanted to do it full time.

That was after he played Schroeder in "A Charlie Brown Christmas" production. "I managed to learn the whole soundtrack," said Sanford, now a rising sophomore at Old Dominion University. "I had such a good time doing it, I kept pushing it further and further."

In April, the young jazz pianist was the featured performer on the first episode of the WHRV radio show "Students in Session with Jae Sinnett."

During the show, Sinnett, a jazz drummer and composer, said Sanford, just 19, "has enormous talent and plays the piano with passion and energy. He clearly has an artistic vision for himself, and he respects the learning process."

Sanford was "scared but also excited" to be on the show with Sinnett. "He's played with the best of the best."

He also appreciated Sinnett's tips. "He told me to feel the music more before I count everybody off" - the term for cueing band members before starting a number. "Try to imagine how I want it to sound in my head."

Sanford, who lives in Chesapeake, was home-schooled in middle and high school, where he played in a jazz band. That experience made him shift his emphasis from classical to jazz. "To me, it's more inviting," he told Sinnett. "There's more freedom that you can take."

He credits much of his progress at ODU to music Professor John Toomey. "I feel like I'm playing with more of a purpose and making everything count," Sinnett said.

Toomey, a jazz pianist who directs the ODU Jazz Combo, in which Sanford plays, recommended him for the radio show.

"He has all the technical things going - a lot of natural ability, good facility at the keyboard, great ears - but he's also got the right attitude," Toomey said. "If you can't communicate with people or get along with them or have a humble attitude, that can block things."

Toomey and Sinnett aren't the only pros impressed by Sanford. Last semester he performed with visiting saxophonist Houston Person and drummer Chuck Redd, and "both were definitely into his playing," Toomey said.

Sanford sometimes plays at Community Church of Chesapeake. Over the summer, he hopes to do solo gigs at local coffeehouses and bars.

Down the road, he'd like to tour, but that might conflict with raising a family. So maybe he'll be a studio musician, teach or both.

And he wants to try drums and trumpet.

"I'm always down for another challenge, because that's going to help me work harder," he said. "I believe that my creator gave me a gift and that I should expound on it as much as I can and not waste it."

Listen to Sanford on "Students in Session with Jae Sinnett" at https://mediaplayer.whro.org/program/studentsinsession

This article appears in the summer issue of Monarch magazine. To read the magazine, go to www.odu.edu/monarchmag

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