BLUE HILL — On a recent summer afternoon, Steve Orlofsky, a jazz musician and recently retired from his gig as George Stevens Academy music director, finished a collage of his 34th year on the job.
Orlofsky’s passion for jazz and music in general has coaxed high school students into smooth sounding — and award winning — players of trumpets, saxophone and bass, to name just a few.
“It was my job to inspire them to play,” Orlofsky said. “I think kids enjoy being a part of something demanding but of high quality. The students knew I really care about music. They wanted to excel too.”
Excel they did.
The band, jazz band and combos won the following during Orlofsky’s tenure:
- Band: gold medal at the Great East Music Festival, Methuen, Massachusetts, 1998 and 1999.
- Jazz Band: Maine State Jazz Festival Champions: 1989, 93, 96, 97, 98, 99, 2003, 04, 05, 06, 07, 08, 09, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17.
- Combo: Maine State Jazz Festival Champions:1997, 2003, 04, 05, 06, 09, 10, 11, 12, 14, 15, 16, 17, 21. Berklee College of Music Jazz Festival: made the Final Four in 2004 (third), 05 (fourth), 10 (third), 11 (third), 17 (second).
Finally, to leave Orlofsky and the band on a high note, no pun intended, GSA won the National Jazz Festival in Philadelphia this year. Last year, they took second place.
This year’s jazz band, named Jazz Immunity, had its last gig with Orlofsky on July 16, when it opened for the Deer Isle Jazz Festival.
Jazz Immunity featured Margaret Nevin (alto sax and vibes), Gabe Hall (trumpet), Morgan Davis (keyboard), Andy Hipsky (bass guitar), and Zeke Sacaridiz (drums).
Music journalist and Wall Street Journal jazz critic Larry Blumenfeld co-founded the Deer Isle Jazz Festival in 2001.
GSA’s jazz band has been one of the opening acts for the festival annually since 2005.
“Steve’s excellence as an educator has been a strong aspect of the festival I helped found,” said Blumenfeld. “He’s everything any musician would ever want in a band director and leader.”
“Each year he brought us wonderful musicians,” Blumenfeld said. “Each year it was a different ensemble, but it was always challenging music and not stuff that was rote.”
“I’ve seen how Steve both nurtures and inspires young musicians,” the critic said. “Like me, he’s broad-minded about what jazz is and likes a lot of different styles of music.”
“In the very last performance, with Steve leading Jazz Immunity, in the last tune, he took an especially strong solo as a parting gift for us,” said Blumenfeld. “We presented him with a little plaque that said Most Valuable Player Deer Isle Jazz Festival 2005-2021.”
Like many passionate musicians, Orlofsky has been performing since childhood. He started a band in the sixth grade with two friends. They called themselves The Continentals.
Orlofsky, of course, will continue to play and perform. You can see him Tuesdays from 5 to 8 p.m. at The Pentagoet Inn in Castine for Jazz on the Porch. Orlofsky is also part of the Night and Day trio, playing saxophone and flute with Chris Poulin on guitar and vocals and Joel Mann on bass. Orlofsky also plays in a funk band called Maine Street R & B Revue.
Mann said he’s been playing music with Orlofsky for over 15 years in at least four different bands.
“He is fun, generous and always the professional,” Mann said. “He loves to play more than anything else. No matter wherever we play, his old students always come up to greet him.”
After a stint as a band director at Fort Fairfield and graduate school at Bowling Green State University, Orlofsky went on the road for three years playing jazz clubs.
“Getting paid to play my horn, what could have been better than that?” the Silver Lake, N.Y., native asked. Touring wasn’t the smoothest experience. There wasn’t a tour bus per se but rather a caravan, with Orlofsky at the helm of his ’68 Chevrolet van and two or three other vehicles following each other.
The band would have a gig one night and then a gig in another state two nights later with nothing booked in between, Orlofsky recalled.
The band’s agent would give them instructions like “drive east.”
Keep in mind this was years before cell phones.
“We’d stop at a phone booth to call our agent,” Orlofsky recalled. “Pat, you got anything?”
“I’ve got to admit it was really cool,” he said. But then, “I was getting a little weary of the road. I really learned a lot, though. They were good players and good people.”
So, Orlofsky went back to Fort Fairfield to be band director. That was 1982.
In 1986, Orlofsky’s wife, Carole, would come east to Hancock County to teach French and German at Mount Desert Island High School.
In 1987, Orlofsky applied for music openings at both Deer Isle Stonington High School and GSA.
Luckily for Blue Hill, GSA was Orlofsky’s choice.
“It seemed like GSA really wanted to have a music program,” the musician said.
Eventually, GSA had a band, a jazz band and five combos. “I was conducting all of it,” Orlofsky said. “It was crazy.”
If you’ve never stepped a toe in a band room, bands are large ensembles.
“Each and every GSA student, regardless of ability, is welcome to play in the band,” Orlofsky said.
GSA also has a jazz band for which students audition.
The director, called Mr. O, said the jazz band, also known as a “big band,” has five to seven saxophones, three to five trombones, three to five trumpets, a vocalist and a rhythm section: piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums. In recent years, the GSA Jazz Band averaged 18-20 members.
Then there are combos, which are smaller jazz bands, typically three to nine members. These may include one to four horns (sax, trumpet, trombone), a vocalist and a rhythm section: piano, vibes, guitar, bass and drums. “Students audition to be a member of the GSA Honors Combo or ‘junior varsity’ combo(s),” Orlofsky said.
“The job requires so much,” said Orlofsky, who turned 69 on June 28. “I think I still have the energy and the desire. But total immersion in this job is what it really takes. I feel like I’m slowing down a little bit. To be an effective music educator takes a lot of energy.”
His energy will be missed.
“Steve Orlofsky has made as much of an imprint on GSA as anyone in the history of the school, through his amazing work inspiring hundreds and hundreds of young musicians,” said Head of School Tim Seeley. “In so doing, he built a legacy of excellence, recognized not just in Hancock County, not just throughout Maine, but nationally, through the stellar performance of GSA jazz combos at national competitions, including this year, where they came in first at the National Jazz Festival. It is impossible to overstate the positive impact Steve has had on the academy. We will miss him greatly.”
The walls of the school’s band room are all lined with the collages Orlofsky has made for each year he’s taught. Center stage on the posters are that year’s official band photos along with newspaper clippings.
Four collages include photos of the new music director, Phelan Gallagher, who is a GSA and Orlofsky alum.
Orlofsky’s parting advice to Gallagher?
“Keep an open mind about music selection. Picking the music kids will like will be a very good thing to do. If the kids are happy, the band director’s happy.”
Incidentally, Phelan Gallagher’s younger brother, Ross, who was another GSA jazz student, was a principal in one of the Deer Isle Jazz festival’s opening bands last weekend, Blumenfeld said.