Family and faith sustain sax man in uncertain live music times

Doug Hill / For The Transcript

Vearl Tolbert performs a solo gig at an OU art museum event last year.

It was a typical gig for Tulsa jazz man Vearl Tolbert (Vearl T). He was playing saxophone solo for a University of Oklahoma event a year ago at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art.

Dressed in a charcoal gray suit and dark sweater, he was the epitome of cool. Tolbert was a natural selection for the evening of art patrons mingling and sipping wine gathered to fete exhibition artist Mildred Howard. That's because one of the artist's more famous works is a huge installation piece at the San Francisco airport titled "Salty Peanuts," made using over 130 actual saxophones. Tolbert's smooth jazz stylings dovetailed perfectly with Mildred Howard's artistic vibe.

In a recent interview with The Transcript, he talked about his career as an entertainer and musician for hire.

"My father, Vearl Tolbert Sr., is a musician who studied music at college," Tolbert said. "I grew up in a house where there was a full drum set in the living room. There was always music being played that I listened to and enjoyed."

That music was gospel, jazz and funk. Tolbert played publicly starting at age 12 in the family's St. John's Baptist Church in Tulsa.

"That was probably the first platform for my music starting in eighth grade," Tolbert said. "I played through the services, would be featured in different programs and travel to different churches playing with the choir. It was a great opportunity to grow up, using my music on that stage."

Tolbert's dad talked him out of studying music at a university. He graduated in technology from the University of Oklahoma in 2006. But Tolbert never left the groove. In addition to being a husband and father of a toddler, he's a special occasion and events musician available on contract.

"I love the variety that comes from these gigs," Tolbert said. "I love playing some of the popular music because of audience reaction. It's fun playing things that people like to hear. There's the opportunity to play in a lot of different places with varied music styles. My favorite is playing special occasions, weddings, engagement and birthday parties, any time when you're celebrating something. That's what I really love, because what I do adds to the event and makes it even more memorable."

Many jazz musicians move to either coast, where the music scenes and career opportunities tend to be greater. Tolbert has chosen to stay here for personal reasons.

"I'm a big family guy," he said with a chuckle. "I love my family, and they all happen to be in Oklahoma. For this particular season of my life with a wife, 3-year-old and all my parents and grandparents are still living; I really enjoy being close and able to share my gifts with family whenever possible. That keeps me around the area for now. Maybe in another season, travel and taking things across the country would be something to explore. But right now, I just love playing in Oklahoma."

Tolbert cited Kirk Whalum, Grover Washington Jr. and Spyro Gyra among his musical influences.

"Certain musicians just resonate, and when I hear their music, I feel in a different way," he said. "Sometimes my 3-year-old will go into a temper tantrum. So I'll turn on some up-tempo happy pop music, and slowly you'll see him calming down. I'm fascinated by how music can change the feel of a room. I do that experiment often playing a lot of restaurants, making a point of mixing it up. Playing some straight-ahead jazz and then throwing in a pop tune, just watching to see how people react. That inspires me to recreate that feeling in the room."

Tolbert is aware of the power music has to comfort people during difficult times.

"It's amazing how different melodies and chord structures, whether they're dissonant versus more spread out and calming, can change how you feel," he said. "It's both how you arrange the notes and how the musician plays it."

Tolbert has absorbed some important lessons in his line of work.

"I've learned to relax," he said. "Over time, I've learned to have fun while I'm playing, because it translates into how I perform. Every opportunity to play is an opportunity to have fun. It makes it better for everybody."

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