With love, appreciation, and Big Band tunes, the Cape Fear Jazz Society and the UNCW Department of Music celebrated the long and inspiring career of Frank Bongiorno in the Beckwith Recital Hall on the UNCW campus. Bongiorno is moving on from his 40-year tenure as a professor at UNCW, but he has also spent a great deal of time and energy improving the lives of North Carolina musicians outside of school hours too. The evening was full of good music, jovial community, and a deep sense of gratitude.

Welcoming the crowd to the celebration, Nancy King, Chair of the Music Department, spoke kindly about Bongiorno’s “very distinguished 40-year career,” and reminded everyone that “none of us would be sitting here without him because he literally built the building.” While chair of the department himself, a position Bongiorno held for 20 years, he oversaw the construction of the music areas of the Cultural Arts Building, a space where many North Carolina musicians have had space to hone their craft.

In addition to his work at the university, Bongiorno is one of the foremost classical saxophonists in the United States. The saxophone emerged relatively late in music history, coming out of 1840s Paris. Bongiorno notably he worked with Eugene Rousseau who was trained by Marcel Mule, who was one of the foremost innovators of classical saxophone playing and revolutionized the instrument which was still in its infancy. Bongiorno has played recitals all over the globe, and has released several albums of recordings, playing both classical and jazz.

In conjunction with the Cape Fear Jazz Society, Bongiorno established the Cape Fear Jazz Society Annual Scholarship. The Faculty Combo, the first group of the night featured this year’s scholarship recipient, Jack Fishback on guitar. The highlight of their short set was a guitar duo, an arrangement Bud Powell’s “Celia” performed gracefully by Fishback and Justin Hoke. The pared-down number demonstrated just how versatile the guitar can be in the right hands.

Next, Natalie Boeyink introduced and directed the Alumni, Faculty, and Friends Big Band. Playing arrangements hand-picked by Bongiorno, the 19 musicians on-stage only represented a small fraction of our community musicians influenced by him not only in the university setting, but in various other forums too. From 1996-2019, he ran the UNCW Summer Jazz Workshops for middle and high school-aged jazz musicians. The annual five-day intensive workshop was one of the longest running workshops in North Carolina history. It’s no wonder that so many friends and associates travelled so many miles to participate in the evening’s festivities.

Boeyink wanted to move the night along, “like a good radio station, less talk and more music,” and that’s exactly what happened. The band played songs by Wayne Shorter, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thad Jones. The first song, Jones’s “Big Dipper,” showed the audience exactly how the night was going to go: a band swinging in full force, smokin’ solos all around, and smiles on every face. Doug Irving opened the solo section with a masterful whirl on the upright bass; the first of many amazing solos of the night. The opening number, and most of the night felt less like a concert, and more like friends getting together to jam. As the event organizer, Ann Seymour described it, “it’s a family affair.” They managed to capture the perfect celebratory atmosphere.

The band played Willie Maiden’s “A Little Minor Booze” smoothly but with great swagger. Alto sax player Benny Hill rocked the house with his solo. Hill was the soloist on most of the evening’s songs, always taking things to the next level; his solo on Oliver Nelson’s “Emancipation Blues” was something to behold. A.J. Reynolds, who played baritone sax during the concert, sang the praises of his section-mate after the show, “Benny is the man!”

Jerald Shynett took Boeyink’s place as director as the band played George Gershwin and Vernon Duke’s “I Can’t Get Started.” Shynett, who played trombone during the concert, also arranged this tune. He directed from his seat in the trombone section, while also playing his part. Justin Hoke played a rollicking guitar solo, and Aaron Lane ripped through his trumpet solo like there was no tomorrow. The concert ended with Gillespie’s “Manteca,” which the band made groove so hard, everyone was moving by the end. It was a fitting grand finale to the night.

After the concert, a standing ovation brought Bongiorno to the stage. Though he humbly accepted the love from all in attendance, he quickly shifted focus to the band, motioning to them as the true stars of the night. A simple gesture that speaks wonders, and demonstrates why he’s so beloved, and why his influence on the community is so revered.