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Jodi Beach: Music from the Heart

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This ubiquitous Rockford musician had the chance to make it big in New York, but luckily for Rockford, she’s made a far-reaching career in sharing music with others.

Jodi Beach Trio members Tom Marken, Jim McDowell and Jodi Beach

Jodi Beach Trio members Tom Marken, Jim McDowell and Jodi Beach

Fifteen years ago, Jodi Beach had a tough decision to make. The Rockford native auditioned to sing on a New York-based televised talent show. If she landed the permanent gig, she’d have to make a big move from her hometown to the Big Apple. Sitting in Central Park, alone with her thoughts, Beach came to a conclusion. She would turn down the offer if she got one – which she did.

“I imagined my life without my family and friends in the Rockford community,” she says. “If I moved and made it big, it wouldn’t have meant much without the people who mean so much to me.”

New York’s loss was Rockford’s gain. Beach is a local musician icon. She’s the leader of the Jodi Beach Trio, a group that performs locally and regionally. In addition, Beach has been a guest soloist with the Rockford Symphony Orchestra, The Kantorei Singing Boys of Rockford, The Rockford Wind Ensemble, The Rockford Concert Band and a number of other performing ensembles.

There’s more. She’s worked as music director for six churches. She’s worked as the artist-in-residence in two high schools and served as an adjunct professor at Rockford University, all while performing, traveling and writing music. The only non-music position she’s ever held was as an administrative assistant, and that was brief. “It was fun,” she says, “but it wasn’t for me.”

Beach is a 9-time Rockford Area Music Industry (RAMI) award-winning jazz musician. The title track from her 2014 inspirational release “You Are Not Alone” earned Song of the Year and the Trio’s 2010 release, “West of the Moon,” was recognized as the RAMI Album of the Year. The group is also a member of the RAMI Hall of Fame.

Beach comes from a musically inclined family that includes parents Frank and Sonja and older sister Lori. At 5, Beach started piano lessons and learned to read sheet music; soon she began performing at church and participating in musical summer camps.

“I remember my dad taking me to Stanley’s Music, a small music store next to the Coronado Theatre,” she says. “There was a piano in the window and boxes of music. He told me I could buy anything. I was in there for hours. It felt like Christmas.”

Beach studied at Judson University and Northern Illinois University. Since then she’s taught both vocal and choral music at Rockford University, Christian Life High School, and Rockford Christian Schools. She’s been on the church musical staff of Bethesda Covenant, Court Street Methodist, Trinity Lutheran and Zion Lutheran Church, where she is currently the music director.

“Musicians have different skills,” she says. “Some are great improvisers, some play by ear. My strength is sight reading. If you put something in front of me I can read it. I just want to play it. Once I play it, I want to play something else.”

Beach caught her first break when she performed “My Funny Valentine” with the late Ron Pederson at Bellamy’s at the Clock Tower on her 16th birthday. “It was such a magical night,” she says. “I remember standing there thinking ‘this is what I want to do.’”

Eight years later, she had her own trio.

The Jodi Beach Trio was formed almost by accident. Beach filled in for the Moonlight Jazz Orchestra, which performed music that was different from the classical music she was used to. But she liked it. Later, she was asked to play for a fundraising dinner and she brought a rhythm section to the event. “People loved it,” she recalls. “But no one knew who we were.”

It was her drummer at the time, Thom Fishe, who suggested they call the group the Jodi Beach Trio. They started by knocking on doors at area restaurants. The first regular gig came at Cliffbreakers, where they played every Friday for six years.

“We really honed our sound there,” Beach says. “That’s where we developed a following.” From there, they went on to book gigs at Trattoria Fantini’s and Table 13 as well as the Mayflower and Giovanni’s. “During the years that musicians were hired at many local restaurants, we often played four nights a week, not including private parties and concerts,” she says.

These days, the Jodi Beach Trio includes rotating drummers Tom Marken and Tim Austin, along with bassist Jim McDowell, who came aboard in 1994. Last fall, Beach and McDowell were married. Beach describes McDowell as her bass player, stage manager, sound engineer and best friend. “Our marriage will only expand our musical creativity,” she says.

Beach’s goal is to make every concert different so fans will come back again. And her set list is extensive, including everything from Nat King Cole’s “Nature Boy” to Judy Garland’s “Over the Rainbow.” Lyrics mean the world to Beach. She points to the last line in “Nature Boy” as one of her favorites. “The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

“Music is in my soul,” she says. “The lyrics drive me. The stories move me. Either I love it or I don’t like it. Most often I’m moved to tears. It’s a strong connection.”

She also has a bond with her audience.

“I’ve worked with many talented people, but Jodi’s personality stands out the most,” says McDowell. “She has a fabulous voice and her piano playing has grown to an equal plane. But she walks on stage with one goal in mind – to please the audience. She feels the same way when she walks off the stage. The first thing she wants to do is be with the people. It’s not about the music or about us. You don’t have a job without the audience. That’s the mark of a great artist.”

Beach is never lacking for things to do. On any given week, she could perform at a funeral service, wedding, private event, church performance or choir rehearsal. When they’re not playing locally, the Jodi Beach Trio members take to the road, playing venues mostly in Midwest states.

“We make our living by doing a variety of musical gigs,” she says. “Rockford has been very good to me, and I love it here. But we also love to travel because there are only so many concerts you can do in your hometown.”

Beach and McDowell also lend their talents to Rock Valley’s Starlight Theatre and Studio Theater, as well as the Artists Ensemble Theater. “I still have my fingers in music theater, which I love,” she says.

Away from the stage, Beach finds inspiration sitting in the sunroom of the home she shares with her husband, where she can observe animals in a wooded area. It’s a place conducive to creativity, where she can write and dream. She calls it her sanctuary.

“I’m very happy in Rockford,” she says. “My father always says, “Everyone has to live somewhere.’ You have to hang your hat somewhere. Most artists don’t live in New York or Los Angeles.”

This promises to be another busy year for Beach. More performances. More teaching. More writing. One of her goals is to play the Ravinia Festival, but, really, she’s happy playing just about anywhere. Beach says: “I love to bring the music of the people to the people.”

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