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Valerie Gillespie's jazz trio makes beautiful music

The phone rings, and it sounds like a tinkling piano.

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The stereo plays Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Kenny Garrett, Diana Krall.

Two incredibly friendly dogs join me on the couch — an 11-year-old Lhasa apso named Pudgy, which keeps pawing at my hand to pet him. It's awfully hard to take notes, but that's okay. I like him.

The other dog, a 7-year-old Shih Tzu, is named Coltrane.

Of course.

In this house in the spectacular rolling hills north of Dade City, the evidence is everywhere: Valerie Gillespie lives for jazz.

My sense is a lot of you already know that. She has been teaching local kids how to play saxophone for years, both private lessons and as part of the music faculty at the University of South Florida. She has played with some of the world's greatest musicians when they visited the area, including Rosemary Clooney, Ray Charles, Ben Vereen, Chick Corea and Dionne Warwick. For two decades, the Florida Orchestra has called on her occasionally when in need of a sax player.

Tonight and Saturday, Gillespie plays Della's After Dark in Brandon.

But I must confess, I hadn't heard of her until my wife persuaded me to visit Dade City in late December for the annual Church Street Christmas. We had been over some years earlier and left a bit disappointed. Not this time. Hundreds of people strolled up and down the historic avenue, enjoying decorated homes, choirs, a live manger scene and one especially hot trio performing unique jazz versions of Christmas standards.

Gillespie, backed by longtime friend and pianist Rick Steuart and drummer Dave Rudolph, played sax and flute and sang with emotion as the crowd called for an encore. A few days later, I called to ask if I could visit.

In between petting dogs, I learned that Gillespie graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a major in classical saxophone. She moved to New York City for three years and found regular work playing for the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus. She traveled extensively and then followed family to Tampa, where her big break came when a friend recommended her as a sax player for the Joel Grey show at Ruth Eckerd Hall. That led to several other similar gigs. Meanwhile, she earned a master's in jazz saxophone at USF.

She began teaching music. One day about 20 years ago, she got a call from a man named Dave who wanted to learn to play sax. He had gone to a music store, and they gave him the names of two instructors. He called one, who didn't call back. So he found Valerie.

You know where this is headed.

"Eventually, I started thinking, 'Man, this guy is really great,' '' she recalled.

Valerie and Dave Gillespie have been married for 18 years. He teaches companies how to get the most out of their computer software — and he's pastor at Peace Community Church near the USF campus in Tampa. The congregation is small, maybe 20 or 25 on any given Sunday. But they are treated to some of the best music around as Valerie combines with Steuart, her jazz ensemble pianist who is also the church organist. They have made six CDs together.

As for the Rev. Gillespie … well, let's just say he's better with computers than the saxophone.

"He plays too fast,'' his wife says. "He doesn't pay attention to rests.''

Whenever they can, Valerie and Dave hit the road on their BMW motorcycles. They have taken several long-distance rides together, including a 5,000-mile trip last summer that extended into Maine. Valerie has also satisfied an adventurous spirit by skydiving.

But ask her what she enjoys most and this is the answer: "Performing. I make music. And I feel so fortunate that people seem to like it.''

Count me as a new fan.

.If you go

Jazz play dates

The Valerie Gillespie Ensemble plays Della's After Dark in Brandon from 7 to 10 p.m. tonight and Saturday. The restaurant is at 608 Oakfield Drive; (813) 684-3354. For more information, visit

valeriegillespie.com.

Valerie Gillespie's jazz trio makes beautiful music 01/19/12 [Last modified: Thursday, January 19, 2012 3:30am]
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