There are party goers and then there are party throwers.
Welcome to the world of party thrower Bruce Cassaday, a horn player who has arguably put together more jazz gigs than anyone else in Downeast Maine.
“Without him, the recent growth of jazz in Hancock County simply would not have happened,” says Hugh Bowden, a jazz guitarist who often plays with Cassaday.
“He has just about single-handedly created a scene in the area where musicians can play jazz, not just rock or country,” said bass player Steve Rappaport, who frequently plays at The Riverside.
Cassaday said his mission is straightforward: “Get as many jazz musicians as possible playing. For years it was an underground commodity for not enough people.”
And he is the first to encourage fledgling and visiting jazz musicians to sit in with the rotating cadre of seasoned musicians.
“Jazz was originated by the people, for the people,” Cassaday said.
Music has been in his life as long as he can remember.
A native of Greensboro, N.C., Cassaday was adopted at 3 months and raised in Connecticut’s well-to-do Fairfield County.
Suffering from undiagnosed dyslexia, Cassaday felt dwarfed by his bookish family. But his mother unwittingly threw him a lifeline.
“She was a huge fan of musical theater, so I grew up as a kid totally surrounded by the Great American Songbook,” he said. “I found I could instantly learn songs by ear.”
As a child he picked up the violin and quickly dropped it when he couldn’t get a pleasing sound.
The next stop was the trumpet. It has been glued to his hands ever since.
“I liked it right away,” Cassaday said. “I liked the sound.”
In the true tradition of jazz, he learned from the greats.
When he was allowed to buy three albums at Christmas, the precocious 9-year-old immediately scooped up Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis and Jonah Jones, all trumpet players.
One music-related memory stands out from his post-adolescent years.
Cassaday mowed the lawn for his neighbor, George Simon, whose brother owned publishing house Simon & Schuster.
George Simon was a drummer with Glenn Miller’s Army Air Force Band. To Cassaday’s delight, Simon paid him in demo albums by musicians such as Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Thelonius Monk.
George Simon knew from conversations with the wiry teenager that he had difficulty reading music.
One day Cassaday was mowing and Simon walked over and told him there was someone on the phone who wanted to talk to him.
“It was a soft voice, a Southwestern drawl,” Cassaday recalled. “‘Don’t worry about having trouble reading music,’ the caller said. ‘I have trouble reading music.’”
The caller was Dave Brubeck.
When it came time for college, Cassaday, who also was talented visually, opted to study art at Kent State University.
While in Ohio he picked up a guitar and for the next 20 years immersed himself in jazz and folk music, picking up chords and theory along the way.
Upon graduation he moved to New York City and worked as a commercial photographer. Two decades later he was searching for a different lifestyle.
In 1981, he visited a dear friend who had moved to Cherryfield, and by 1989 Cassaday was living in a house in Milbridge.
He picked up commercial photography work and later a job teaching at KidsPeace in Ellsworth.
Cassaday also began playing his horn regularly again. He joined “Joyful Jazz,” a group that had been formed by pianist and longtime friend Brian Dyer Stewart, who plays regularly at the Nautica Pub.
A persistent leg infection forced Cassaday to retire from KidsPeace after 10 years — that was in 2010 — and he returned to the trumpet with a vengeance.
When putting together gigs Cassaday said he looks for musicians who are versatile, “can speak well musically and listen well to other players.”
Moments of inspired improvisation — the heart and soul of jazz — makes all of the scheduling and angst worthwhile, he said.
“Part of the jazz tradition is learning to step away from the written page and take a leap of faith,” Cassaday said. “It’s very revealing about what you’re feelings are about humanity.”
Bass player Don Knowles and pianist Rob Collins, both of Lamoine, call Cassaday the “Norman Granz” of the Downeast jazz scene. Granz was a legendary impresario who worked tirelessly to promote jazz from the 1940s into the 1980s.
As a musician, Collins said, Cassaday is playful and daring.
“He will enter things where angels fear to tread,” Collins said of Cassaday’s improvisations.
Knowles, who has played professionally for more than six decades, said Cassaday has a rare quality as a musician, a quality Knowles compared to the late trumpet player Doc Cheatham.