Howie awards honor artists

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Robert Friedman

Peter BarenBregge, the musical director of the Columbia Jazz Band, was recently named Outstanding Artist for 2014, as part of the annual Howie Awards, presented by the Howard County Arts Council. He has played saxophone with former President Bill Clinton and as backup with such luminaries as Stevie Wonder, Patti LaBelle and Sammy Davis, Jr.
Photo courtesy of Peter BarenBregge

Peter BarenBregge has traded blues bars with fellow tenor saxophonist Bill Clinton. Greg English teaches Reservoir High School students both new age technology and the ages-old techniques of the visual arts. And the Howard Bank invests in supporting the local arts community because it believes the arts help build the economy.

 BarenBregge, the musical director of the Columbia Jazz Band; English, the art department chair at Reservoir High School; and the 10-year-old Howard Bank have been chosen as the most recent Howie Award winners. The awards are presented yearly at a Celebration of the Arts gala by the Howard County Arts Council to outstanding artists, educators and business or community supporters who have made significant impacts on the local arts scene.

Also honored, posthumously, was Yong Ku Ahn, the first music director of the Columbia Orchestra, who was cited for a special Legacy in the Arts award.

The awards ceremony was held recently at Howard County Community College. It also included a silent art auction and performances by local performers who are considered rising stars. The gala is the arts council’s main source of corporate and foundation funding, and supports its grants and education programs for children and adults throughout the year.

All that jazz

BarenBregge, 66 — a professional musician whose “day job” is jazz editor for Alfred Music, which publishes educational music — was named the past year’s Outstanding Artist. He has made several recordings, and was former musical director and featured soloist where he played sax, flute and clarinet for the U.S. Air Force’s Airmen of Note jazz ensemble.  

Among many other appearances, he played in the band backing Frank Sinatra at Ronald Reagan’s presidential inauguration; he improvised with Dizzy Gillespie, when the trumpet great was a guest with the Airmen of Note; and he played backup alongside Patti LaBelle, Sammy Davis Jr., Mary Chapin Carpenter. Henry Mancini, Mel Torme and Stevie Wonder.

At one of his many White House gigs, BarenBregge brought along an extra tenor sax and asked the then-occupant, President Bill Clinton, whether he wanted to join in the music-making. Clinton agreed.

How did it go? Did the former president swing on the sax?

“He and I traded some fours on a blues tune,” said BarenBregge. “I kept it simple. I didn’t want to upstage the president. We had a good time. The audience loved it. For a sitting president of the United States, he was damn good.”

Not easy to make a living

BarenBregge acknowledged that the life of a jazz musician, which he considers himself, is far from a lucrative profession nowadays.

“There are some jazz clubs in D.C.,” he noted, but “it’s not like 50 to 60 years ago” (when the Washington area was a prime site for jazz clubs). The money is low and you have to do a lot of other stuff, play weddings, etc., to survive.”

He noted that he started playing jazz in high school in Wilmington, Del., at a time when “you could hear jazz on the radio.”

He got hooked on the music by listening to, among others, the saxophone stylings of Cannonball Adderley, Stanley Turrentine and John Coltrane.

While jazz is in decline in the U.S., BarenBregge believes that “slowly” — and, hopefully, surely — the music will make a comeback. He noted that “kids are still playing jazz in high school bands. In fact, he was going later that day to judge a jazz music competition at Chantilly High School in Fairfax, Va.  He added that adults, who may not be able to earn a living jamming, still play the music as a hobby, if nothing else.

“I think jazz — Duke Ellington, Count Basie, John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins — will still be played 50 years from now” he said, emphasizing that  (D.C.-native) Ellington “is our Beethoven.”

BarenBregge is proud of the fact that he directs the Columbia Jazz Band, which is composed “95 percent” of Howard County residents ages 35 to 70, all of whom are “excellent musicians.”  The ensemble plays concerts and outdoor dances and have had four performing tours around Europe, the leader noted.

The band includes, among other sidemen, a doctor researching heart disease, a social worker, computer scientists, lawyers, music educators and a retired minister. 

Teaching the next generation

Greg English, who was honored as Outstanding Arts Educator, has been teaching in and around Howard County elementary and high schools for the past 15 years, the last nine of them at Reservoir High School. An Elkridge resident, the 37-year-old English also practices what he teaches, which is painting and photographer. But he noted that “I always wanted mostly to be an arts educator.”  

While he believes that computers could be used in making original work of arts, he teaches the more traditional, manual techniques. “It’s important to have that foundation” before trying to digitalize whatever it is that creates a true work of art, the teacher said.

He offers technological help for students who want to use the Internet for online portfolios of their art and photography work.

 Whether it’s through the digital or hands-on route, “I love to open the eyes of students to art,” said English. “It could have such a powerful effect on them.”

English noted that many of today’s students appeared to be less patient and focused than students when he first began to teach.

“Art is all about putting in time and effort to learn skills,” he said.

Nevertheless, “those students who are willing to listen will be at least as creative” as those who came before them. The restlessness of many of his students, he said, is compensated by “more innovation and risk-taking  among the budding artists in the classrooms.”

Howard Bank President and CEO Mary Ann Scully accepted the business award for the institution and announced at the ceremony that the bank was beginning a scholarship fund for fine arts students at HCCC. The bank will seed the scholarship with $20,000, Scully said, and she encouraged area businesses to contribute to what she called “The Celebration of the Arts as an Economic Anchor Scholarship Fund.”

She noted: “The arts do not just lift us up and out of ourselves . . . the arts also connect and serve as intermediaries and also build economies.”

Scully, who lives in Clarksville and was inducted in the Howard County Women’s Hall of Fame in 2007, also pointed out that besides the jobs created in organizations, the arts can bring in the money with works that become tourist attractions. They can also attract and keep going “a creative class of bright, educated earners that can transform a community.”

Legacy in the Arts award honoree Yong Ku Ahn was a longtime resident of Columbia who died in 2013 at the age of 85. A virtuoso violinist who founded and conducted the Columbia Orchestra, Ahn was also an internationally recognized teacher. He had been a member of the faculty at Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore for 34 years. He was born in what is now North Korea.

Information on the Howie Award nomination process for 2015 will be available beginning this summer. For more information, see