It’s not that anyone ever discouraged Colin Graebert from trying to make it as a professional musician in Bangor — it’s just that no one ever held out hope that anyone could really do it.
“Everyone told me it would never work and that I had to go to Portland at least, if not Boston or New York, to make a living as a musician,” said Graebert, 25, a Brewer resident. “I spent a couple years not really playing and just working, because I never thought I could work it out.”
Fortunately, Graebert proved everyone wrong. He’s currently in not one, but three bands, and works as a piano accompanist for just about anyone who needs him. He’s just as happy playing hot jazz in a bar as he is accompanying jazz and classical vocalists or theatrical productions on the piano. He’s making a living doing it — one of a handful of dedicated, talented professional musicians in eastern Maine.
His jazz group, the Colin Graebert Trio, performs twice monthly at the Hilton Garden Inn in Bangor’s Thursday jazz nights, the next of which is set for 6:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, May 27, featuring vocalist Allison Bankson. He’ll also play piano on June 9 for the Penobscot Theatre’s Songs and Scenes showcase, previewing next year’s season. On top of the school and community choirs he backs up, and the baby he and his wife are expecting at the end of the month, he’s a busy dude.
First things first, though. How did a guy who largely had given up on making a living as a musician, and was making the retail slog instead, get back into the fray? Well, you have to go way back, before he attended Berklee College of Music in Boston, and later the music program at the University of Maine. Back to when the then 12-year-old Graebert, also a talented violinist, played fiddle for 19th century re-enactment events at Leonard’s Mills in Bradley. Gaylen Smith, a sometimes freelance photographer, snapped his picture. Little did he know that 13 years later, Smith and he would be in a band together.
“Flash forward like 10 years, and we met at the Bangor Mall. Gaylen hired me as the night manager at Prints Plus,” said Graebert. “I found out he was a bass player. We really got along. A year later, we met again when we were both taking classes at [Eastern Maine Community College.] I asked him to join the Galley Rats and play bass.”
The Galley Rats, Graebert’s on-and-off Maritime folk band, has been seen at St. Patrick’s Day celebrations at Paddy Murphy’s and the Sea Dog in Bangor every year. But what Graebert really wanted to do was play jazz, his lifelong passion. Graebert, Smith and Chris Viner, a versatile drummer whom Graebert has known since high school, jammed a few times in 2008.
Band mind meld set in early — it was as easy as remembering how to ride a bicycle. And in a happy coincidence, it turns out that Smith’s longtime partner, Allison Bankston, is one heck of a jazz vocalist, singing standards and contemporary songs with laid back ease.
“Yeah, that was a nice surprise,” said Grabert. “Allison performs with us all the time.”
The band has done a bit of everything — from playing fundraisers and weddings to a three-week gig as the backing band for Penobscot Theatre’s popular musical “Forever Plaid.”
Meanwhile, all three musicians were jamming with another area jazz group, the Aurora Jazz Project, a band Smith is a regular member of. Trumpet player Mark Tasker and guitarist Brady Harris play with the Colin Graebert Trio regularly. The line between the two bands is pretty fluid.
“Sixty percent of the Colin Grabert Trio is the Aurora Jazz Project,” said Graebert. “We can all kind of mix and mingle pretty easily. We all have that level of playing skill where we can just sit down and jump in.”
Graebert has lots of plans for his musical career. He sees the Colin Graebert Trio as a regularly available backing band for any hibernating jazz musicians in the area who want to dust off an instrument and give playing live a chance again.
“I know they’re out there,” said Graebert. “We’ll play with anybody if their chops are good.”
He and Viner also daydream regularly about opening a music venue in downtown Bangor that would focus on blues and jazz — but that’s much further down the line. For now, the trio just want to play, play, play. For Graebert, he’s not sure what he likes better: being an accompanist, or being in a band.
“I really couldn’t pick,” he said. “On the one hand, working with organizations and schools allows you to work with great musicians and great kids and have your nights free. But jazz is so much fun too. I couldn’t pick. I’m just happy to be making music.”
To contact Colin Graebert about his trio or his piano backing skills, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.