By Sonia Lee Garber
Kristina Koller and Alex Smith are the Co-Founders of the “Feel Good Music Series”, which will take place this summer at Charles Point in Peekskill, NY. The first live music performance will be held on June 12th, and they will be orchestrating a total of six shows with different bands taking place every other Saturday.
Koller and Smith are both transplants to Peekskill from New York City. Koller moved here in December. She had been living in the city for six years and is originally from Yorktown Heights. I ask how she and Alex came together and she replies,
“I was like, Oh, I’ve got to see who’s around the area, like musician wise. And then I found Alex, and I was like, wow, how did we never play with each other before? Cause I’m also a jazz singer, who’s a jazz pianist. And we have a lot of mutual friends and connections. So, I was like, I have to reach out to this guy. And then we started performing. We did Peter Pratt’s (Yorktown Heights, NY,) and then we did the “Downtown Music Series.” (Division Street in Peekskill) …and then that was that. And I was like, Hey Alex; I have this idea…would you be interested in helping out? And that’s how it came about.”
Smith moved here from New York City in 2013 with his wife and daughter. He says,
“We were looking for more space, our apartment was getting a little crowded, and we absolutely fell in love with Peekskill…it’s just a wonderful town with a lot of creative people. There’s a great arts community here, and we’ve got, you know, some wonderful shops and restaurants here that we just felt like, oh yeah, we can do this. It’s also easy to get into the city; most of my work is in the city.”
According to Smith’s website (alexsmithkeys.com), “Alex Smith is a Grammy Award-winning pianist, organist, composer, and educator. He is most widely known for his work accompanying Lady Gaga for Super Bowl 50 (2016); he is the keyboardist and arranger for her jazz quintet and was featured on the Grammy-winning album with Tony Bennett “Cheek to Cheek.” He has performed with a diverse array of musicians, from jazz greats Tony Bennett, Louie Bellson, and Terence Blanchard to stars such as Lady Gaga, Stevie Wonder, Emily King, and Molly Ringwald. Smith is the music director for the Verve recording artist Brian Newman and is currently a featured performer for Lady Gaga’s Jazz and Piano residency in Las Vegas at the Park MGM Theater for 2019 and 2020.”
As can be read on Koller’s website (kristinakoller.net), “Kristina Koller is an evolving jazz-centric artist, who has developed into a highly individual songwriter, arranger, and vocalist. Her diverse and unconventional approach is exemplified in her last album ‘Stronger’, where she combines art rock with jazz and indie-pop. Koller creates music that crosses generations while still embracing the history and mood of traditional jazz. She studied at the Hartt School’s Jackie McLean Institute of Jazz and completed her formal music education at the City College of New York. Kristina developed her musical voice in the NYC jazz scene, performing at venerable haunts such as Smalls, Smoke, Minton’s, and Mezzrow, as well as the Apollo Theater.”
I ask Smith how he felt when Koller approached him with the “Feel Good Music Series” idea, and he says,
“I was very excited about it because we have great musicians up here. It was another musician that brought me to this area, and we have some great shared public spaces here…there’s just a real desire to get live music happening again…the shows I’ve been able to do, the response has been, from some people in the audience, like very emotional, you know, they’ve been a whole year without seeing [live music] and some people have come up to the bands that I’ve played in and said, you know, I haven’t seen music in a whole year and this is just so nice, you know, and…it’s been very sort of emotional. So, when Kristina reached out to me about it, I thought it was a great idea, you know, immediately.”
Koller and Smith are currently fundraising for the music series. You can make a donation by going to:
“We’re getting there”, says Smith. It’s a three-pronged approach. We’ve got the [givebutter campaign] for individual donations, we’ve got a corporate sponsorship as well, and we’ve enlisted at least, you know, five or six businesses but I think we have commitments from more, and we’ll be putting them on t-shirts, posters, the banner, trying to get the word out about their businesses…we’re using private donations, corporate sponsorships, and then we’re also working on a few grants…I think we’re hoping to sort of fully fund this. We’ve also partnered with a really great arts organization called Arts 10566, with Wilfredo Morel…I teach music production classes for his organization and Wilfredo just got very excited about it…so all the donations are going to be collected by Arts 10566, this is going to be a partnership with them. The donations will be tax-deductible as well…he’s been really a big help in really making this thing happen…We are also pairing these performances with educational programming that will happen earlier in the day.”
So far, what they have for the educational component of the “Feel Good Music Series” is a muralist, a jazz saxophonist, and a hula hoop instructor.
“I don’t know what else we’ll have, but that’s what we have so far.” Says Koller.
Koller and Smith have also partnered with the Westchester Ballet and The Dance Conservatory.
“I think they’re going to in the earlier parts of the day have their students performing their dances and stuff they’ve been working on…and I think there are going to be some professionals also dancing with that…so that’s going to be our Kick-Off event on June 12th…when we talk to people about it or when they find out about it, there’s a lot of excitement.”
I ask Koller and Smith what inspires them. Kristina says,
“I grew up in Yorktown and Yorktown was always like, lacrosse and the football field. They weren’t about the arts at all. And I always hung out in Peekskill cause I was like, well, there’s things to do here. There’s a coffee shop to just chill in and there’s, you know, 12 grapes back in the day…so the thing that I want Peekskill to still have is that art buzz…that like type of community where young people feel like they can come and they can be inspired in nature, and, you know, to be able to go on the train and just go to New York is like amazing, you know, different aspects of Peekskill…I feel like there’s so much that we can do here to make this like a buzzing community of arts.”
Smith says that what inspires him is,
“For my family here, we just almost right away just really fell in love with Peekskill, you know, and I feel like I’m kind of a Peekskill evangelist. Like I’m always telling my musician friends that live in the city and they’re cramped in a one-bedroom apartment, you know, with a couple of kids…I’m like, you got to come to Peekskill…not only are there some great people, there are wonderful musicians like Kristina, there’s also the drummer in my group that lives up the street from me. And there’s some great music. I mean, world-class musicians just living right here. There was a fire here on Diven Street three or four years ago and unfortunately a woman died and about six or seven families lost their homes. And I talked to a few people and within like, a couple of weeks, we were able to get a fundraiser at the Dramatic Hall and, you know, like 200 people came or more. And I was just so blown away with that sense of community, you know…there are so many people here with someone lending production talents and this amazing recording engineer did the sound and, you know, everyone just sort of chipped in to really make that thing happen. And it was a wonderful showing of like how great Peekskill is, you know…it’s not just a creative town. It’s not just a suburb of New York, it’s kind of a special place, you know? And that’s what I feel about it.”
“Peekskill’s a Friendly Town as they say, right?” says Koller with a giggle.
“As you might see on the signs”, replies Smith and continues,
“I mean, there are just times we’re walking along the Hudson and my wife and I, like, I can’t believe we live in such a beautiful place, you know?”
I ask Koller and Smith how they’ve been managing all along this past year with Covid.
Koller says, “Well for me, it took me, like I was living at home for a bit, it took me six months to find an apartment in Peekskill because it was ridiculous. I got artist certification and it didn’t mean anything…I couldn’t live in these artist lofts that cost like, $1,700…and it was very frustrating. But like once I found my spot, I was like, oh, okay…[I’m] relaxed now. That was just like really hard for me.”
Koller says about how Covid has affected her,
“I had 15 private students before COVID hit and then it all like disappeared as time went on. So, I was thankful enough to be able to like, get unemployment, but like, it was rough not being able to teach and not being able to, like, feel my creative buzz and keep it going…like it was hard to stay motivated, especially during the wintertime. But then 2021 came around and I was like, forget last year, [let’s] make something happen this year.”
Koller adds, “People keep saying there’s going to be a Renaissance after the pandemic.”
Smith continues by saying,
“It’s been a terrible year and a hard year. But it has given me an opportunity to be, you know, with my family, which has been wonderful…it feels to me like a rebirth in a way, you know? I’m starting [back] like with the bands I’ve been playing with for a long time, we’re back in New York, but it feels like we’re starting all over again. You know what I mean? Like all that momentum was kind of lost and we’re doing it again, but I also think there are opportunities. So, after that whole shock of the thing went together for me, it was a period to look a little inwardly and to, practice and to work on some elements in my music that I wanted to work on…I feel like everyone in that band that I play with too, feels like, okay, we’re starting over, but I think [we] have a renewed focus and like, okay, this is what we want to do. And this is how we want to do it. And maybe even do it better than we did before. And I think this series is like that too. It’s like, when Kristina reached out and we both felt like, she, you know, was gigging a lot, you know, doing a lot of work. And, you know, I was doing the same. We would have never had the opportunity to do something like this, you know, in a normal year, but also, we might not have been able to also get some of the bands that we wanted to get, you know, because they would have been traveling and busy too. So, it kind of gives us the opportunity to get some great talent and to put time into something that I think will pay off dividends in the future. When we can maybe expand this and grow this and have this be, just, you know, part of the fabric of the things you can do here in Peekskill in the summertime.”