Jazzed: John Carden and Greenwich Swing Time


While they may march to a slightly different drummer, composer and singer John Carden believes he's every bit as Olympian as champion Michael Phelps– "Being a classical singer is like being an Olympic athlete– it's a high-wire act," he says.

And for Carden, who may not win any gold medals, his life as a musician is every bit as rewarding as Phelps' world records. After pursing an internationally renowned career as an opera singer, Carden has recently changed his tune and begun to study and perform American jazz with local icon pianist/organist George Melvin.

"Jazz is the type of music I love most," Carden says. "It incorporates every culture, and it's such a non-divisive art form– it's truly a unique phenomenon."

At a Keswick Hall concert last Christmas Eve, Carden found himself pulled onstage by Melvin to stand beside the pianist and lead the packed hall in song. When the chance meeting led Carden to join Melvin at his weekly sessions at South Street Brewery soon after the holidays, Carden began pursing jazz as a new twist on his classical opera training.

As his study with Melvin blossomed, Carden founded his jazz group, Greenwich Swing Time, in April. Composed of various local jazz legends– from Melvin on piano to Humberto Sales on Latin guitar– Greenwich Swing Time has found its niche in Charlottesville's music scene, according to Carden.

"I wondered if anyone today would be interested" he says, "but we saw in short order that we were getting lots of interest and bookings."

Wrapping up his first jazz album– John Carden: The George Melvin Sessions– Carden has found the switch from opera to jazz to be as smooth as his voice under the tutelage of Melvin and Sales.

"They are his [Melvin's] arrangements," he says of the album. "I'm there to facilitate what he wants to express."

Learning from others is not all Carden has been up to lately.

A year ago, at an open house fund-raiser for friend Beth Neville Evans' Ixtatan Foundation School, Carden approached Evans with a request to teach hair-cuttery at the school. But Evans turned on him with a similar request– for him to also teach music.

And so he spent the month of July teaching 165 children in San Mateo in Guatemala's highlands, and he has returned with a heightened sense of pride and appreciation for his music.

"Music is my purpose," he says. "The key to happiness for everyone is to live your life so you go to the one thing you love. That's what music is for me."

As a composer, a singer, even a haircutter, Carden continues to grow as a person and an artist. Taking the stage on Friday, he expects his style of jazz to have a lasting impact.

"You hear jazz everywhere– a retail store, a restaurant, at dinner parties– it's a universal music," he says with pride. "Even though executives at record companies dismiss it as old-time music, it seems to have a better shelf life– and that resonates with me."

John Carden and Greenwich Swing Time perform at Fridays After Five on August 22. The Matthew Willner Quartet opens.