Recently retired Clovis High choral conductor Mark Lanford was center stage Friday, Aug. 25, at On the Edge in Clovis, performing live for the first time in many years along with a few friends and fellow educators.
The Mark Lanford and Friends show was a hoot with a crowd of supporters, many of whom were former students of Lanford, there to hear Lanford show off his jazz vocals and harmonize with daughter Allison Waller and jam with several instrumentalists, including Fresno State piano major Kevin Person Jr., Clovis West choral conductor Tonya Florer, drummer Tim Wright, Fresno’s famous violinist Patrick Contreras, Clovis High art teacher and saxophonist Darryl Miller, Steve Nance, the director of bands at Kerman High School, and Jim Belt, the lead singer and guitarist for local band Dakota Crossing.
Lanford said getting the lineup of local musicians together for the evening was a challenge, but On the Edge owners Scott and Julie Glenn encouraged him to make his bucket list dream of performing with a jazz band a reality.
Before Lanford retired, he daydreamed about what he would do when he no longer had the commanding schedule of a high school choral director and could become more involved with in the music community. Apart from being a member of his church choir, Lanford said he had limited free time to pursue his vocal aspirations when he was busy teaching younger generations how to sing and blend their voices together. His interest in vocal jazz and desire to perform only grew with age and he knew upon retirement that he would do his best to get back into the local music scene.
“I’ve always loved singer-songwriter music and I’ve written some of my own songs,” Lanford said. “Little by little since my sophomore year in high school, I began to get more interested in that and I went through the Great American Songbook, which has tunes from 40s era musicals and jazz standards. Working as a conductor, I wasn’t able to get involved in the jazz community, though, and it is hard to break into, but my friend Les Nunes, who taught jazz band at Clovis High, told me to do it on my own and make it happen.”
While already on his list of to-dos, Lanford’s desire to pursue jazz grew even more after he tragically and unexpectedly lost his wife. In his grief, Lanford began writing music to cope and soon realized it was music that would comfort him and see him through the rest of his life until he could see his bride once again in heaven.
“It shook our family hard and a lot of writing came from my grief,” Lanford said. “I wrote poems that cry out and reconcile the fact I will be grieving for the rest of my life, and I wrote about finding a place where I can move forward and honor her life as she waits for me to join her. I started to see that though this was difficult, I had this new opportunity to focus on my music and my writing just exploded.”
Altogether, Lanford and his friends had 31 original and cover songs to perform. The On the Edge patio, he said, was the perfect intimate gathering spot to perform this music, plus Scott and Julie insisted he perform there and gave him tremendous support.
Lanford said his songwriting and jazz interest were inspired by Dr. LeGrand Andersen, who taught him at Fresno City College in the mid-70s.
“Dr. Andersen really inspired me to pursue jazz and gave us [students] all a lot of courage by calling us out in the middle of a song for a solo and you had to learn to improvise or scat in front of any audience and just go for it,” Lanford said. “That grew my confidence. Now, I still do some scat here and there, but I find a little goes a long way.”
Lanford served Clovis Unified for a combined 29 years—17 as the choral conductor at Clark Intermediate and 12 as the choral conductor at Clovis High School. Prior to that, he worked a couple years for Fresno Unified and for a district in the Long Beach area, where he lived for six years while completing his education at Long Beach State.