Eric Stevens (’53) seated center, and Scott Helwig (’98) far right, jazz it up with the Swing Daddies.

Swing daddies

Still Dukes by any other name

Two alumni — who graduated 45 years apart — prove that jazz and JMU span the ages. First comes Harry Jeavons (’53), who launched a musical career in the mid ’50s and brought his catchy alter ego to life. “Jeavons is a difficult name to spell, pronounce and remember,” he explains. “As a musician, an identifiable product is vital. You are the product, and people remember your name.” Nearly five decades later, Jeavons (a.k.a. Eric Stevens) thrives in his element as a jazz performer.

After graduating from Madison College and completing a tour of service in the U.S. Army, Stevens turned to music professionally, branching out into vocals and working in New York for 11 years with such legends as American bandleader Lester Lanin and jazz master Bill Conti, who composed the Rocky theme. In 1957, Stevens added the bass to an already impressive list of musical talents. “And I always wanted to play the piano, so I just started to play,” he says. Soon after, the Eric Stevens Jazz and Blues Group took shape.

Nearly half a century later, a second JMU alumnus and member of the U.S. Navy’s Atlantic Fleet Band joined Stevens’ group. Not long after his graduation, Scott Helwig (’98) was introduced to Stevens by Navy band mate Alex Gowland.

“Alex had already been playing with Eric, and he suggested they use me as their drummer. I met Eric for the first time at a rehearsal at his house in Virginia Beach. While I was setting up my drum set, I learned that we had both attended JMU,” says Helwig.

“I remember the first time we played together. I hadn’t even heard many of the songs we performed, and we didn’t have time to rehearse them. Eric helped me learn them as we played,” Helwig confesses.

Stevens was impressed with Helwig’s subtle style. He says, “The No. 1 thing so many drummers lack is restraint, but Scott has good taste. He’s the world’s quietest drummer, and we hit it off beautifully.”

During Helwig’s six-month stint with the Eric Stevens Jazz and Blues Group, the band played at Williamsburg’s multi-media festival, “An Occasion for the Arts.” The annual event showcases nationally acclaimed artists.

Stevens and his band mates adapt their wide range of performances to best suit the location and atmosphere of an event. “We’ve done Eric Stevens Swing Daddies in zoot suits,” Stevens laughs. “And we were quite honored to play the Chrysler Museum of Art in downtown Norfolk.”

Stevens’ group has created and performed several theme programs including, A Salute to Sinatra, Broadways’ Greatest Moments, Nat “King” Cole, Great African-American Entertainers, The Birth of Rock & Roll and Women of Song.

“You have to be versatile today,” adds Stevens, who doesn’t notice major differences in technique between generations of jazz musicians. “Nowadays, just about everyone crosses,” he admits. “I even try to hide my age — people think I’m 55.”

Stevens’ versatility spans the arts. He has opened for Bill Cosby and performed with Elliott Gould and Keefe Brasselle. He appeared in several television commercials and on the soap Another Life. He is author of Be Witty and has written for Inside Business, Blues News and Tidewater Senior. He’s also shared his talents by teaching the History of Jazz at Tidewater Community College and Old Dominion University.

Although the Eric Stevens Group hasn’t performed in Harrisonburg, Stevens often makes the trip to his alma mater. On occasion, he even showcases his musical talents. “I’ve played piano for classmates at a couple of reunions,” he says. “I go back as often as I can — I’m one of these reunion fans.”

With his career constantly on the up-swing, Stevens has delved into a new line of work. “When the New Year came around, a new career came around. I’ve just got into song writing,” he says. Again, he reveals a flair for versatility in composing both sophisticated jazz pieces and simple country tunes — songs he intends to deliver personally to Nashville.

“Usually people like to write the music first, but I like to write the words first,” he says. “It’s easier to build the music around the words, there’s more freedom there for me.”

As if his days weren’t full enough, Stevens also produces local weekly shows of what he calls “fun songs and Tom Foolery.”

“It’s something fun to do,” he laughs, “just a few clean jokes and happy music.”

Stevens’ carefree optimism has influenced his band members. “I enjoyed performing with Mr. Stevens,” Helwig says. “He’s a great person — professional, and a fantastic musician with a lifetime of experience performing music.”

Helwig is currently stationed in Chicago at the Great Lakes Training Center with wife Mandy (’98). The stick-man continues to play for the U.S. Navy Band and plans to pursue graduate studies in music following his enlistment.

And Eric Stevens’ score is still not completely written. He looks forward to many more years in his musical career. “You can’t quit being who you are,” he says.

 

Story by Ashley Day (’02)

 


Publisher: Montpelier Magazine For Information Contact: montpelier@jmu.edu