Cheek to cheek, side by side for eight years

Band brings jazz lovers to College Park

Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006

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Christopher Anderson⁄The Gazette
Local band Cheek to Cheek performs at Mulligan’s Grill at the University of Maryland Golf Course Oct. 5. The band includes Julie Parsons on piano and vocals, Eric Shramek on bass, Tom Ruggieri on saxophone and Vince McCool on trumpet.

University Park resident Julie Parsons, who once was a pianist cutting her teeth in European coffeehouses, was on hiatus from her love affair with music in 1998.

Parsons, a counselor at University of Maryland College Park, had tired of the music scene’s daily rigors — schlepping around speakers, she called it.

That all changed during a lunch break.

Parsons learned of coworker Tom Ruggieri’s passion for music. She and Beltsville resident Ruggieri ventured across campus one afternoon in search of a piano. Parsons’ fingers tickled the keys with the ease of muscle memory, and Ruggieri jammed on the sax, an instrument he once gave up for 17 years.

Ruggieri looks back at the relaxed lunch break musical forays and recalls the joy of making music once again.

‘‘It was mostly for fun,” he said. ‘‘We found that we both had this interest in jazz. Neither of us had played it, but we wanted to. ... We sort of developed a repertoire and discovered we could really do something with this.”

A band was born, and Cheek to Cheek — including acoustic bass player Eric Shramek and trumpeter Vincent McCool — has been a fixture at Mulligan’s Grill at the university’s golf course.

Cheek to Cheek has brought music lovers to Mulligan’s — and other local venues like College Park’s Calvert House Inn and Beltsville’s Shilla Bakery and Jazz Café – every Thursday for eight years.

Parsons, who smiles when reflecting on her time bringing cutting-edge American music to Vienna, Austria, coffee shops in the late-1970s, said seeing similar faces in College Park every week has created a bond between listener and player.

‘‘It’s such an incredible joy on so many different levels,” said Parsons, whose husband, Darrell Parsons, occasionally handles the vocals for Cheek to Cheek. ‘‘You have people who you get to know as they come every Thursday. You feel like you are a part of their life, part of their relaxation. ... Being with our crowd is wonderful, and it has allowed us to grow as a band.”

Ruggieri, who first picked up the saxophone at 10-years-old, said the Mulligan’s gig has allowed for weekly out-of-office bonding for coworkers at the university.

‘‘It’s really cool to work with people during the day and relax with them at night,” he said. ‘‘You get to see people sort of wearing different hats. ... And meeting the community people has really extended my network.”

Mulligan’s manager Lafrieda Robinson watches Cheek to Cheek take the stage every Thursday and says the band’s melding of soulful notes and crisp blues music often fills the restaurant.

‘‘They’re very entertaining and the crowd seems to have picked up on their music,” said Robinson, a manager for four years. ‘‘Sometimes [the audience for a Cheek to Cheek performance] is more than we can handle. We have to put a waiting list together when they come here sometimes.”

University Park resident Michael Cayo-Cotter, a jazz connoisseur since the mid-1960s, said Cheek to Cheek has made Mulligan’s Grill a premier spot for local music admirers.

‘‘The band has gotten so good over the last couple of years that it’s one of the best jazz bands in the Washington area. We’ve seen their musicianship just grow and grow and grow,” said Cayo-Cotter, who frequents area jazz festivals. ‘‘[Mulligan’s Grill] has become like a community center for our friends. ... We’ve got this musical jewel right in our backyard.”

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