A folk song Reginald Cyntje favored while growing up on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands (USVI) set the pattern for his life’s work. “Queen Mary,” which tells the story of Mary Thomas, a heroine of the 1878 Labor Riot on the island of St. Croix, stimulated rebellion against social injustice. The Silver Spring jazz trombonist and composer shares that goal.
“The Rise of the Protester,” his eponymously-named group’s Saturday, June 3 concert at the Arts Barn in Gaithersburg, is a “series of tone poems that address the current climate of the divided states,” said the 41-year-old musician. “I feel as an artist, it is my duty to inspire positive change.”
To Cyntje, the message is as important as the artistry. “One listener, after hearing the new compositions, said that the music is fun and thought-provoking,” he said. “I like that description because oftentimes, we look at activism as something that is tedious. If folks can have a good time in the process, cool.”
Although his family was not particularly musical, Cyntje’s father–“who loved music and took piano lessons as a kid”–gave his 10-year-old an electric piano. Not long afterwards, he recalled becoming “curious” about music, but said he did not feel “passion” until seventh grade when he began playing trombone. A taste for jazz developed a year later, via a Miles Davis CD his friend (and subsequent band partner) shared with him.
Upon announcing he wanted to become a musician, Cyntje’s parents “were concerned about me making a living. In the Virgin Islands, people did not solely make a living from making music.” Nevertheless, he persisted—with their support, and fast forward a couple of decades, Cyntje is a full-time musician.
Some 20 years ago, Cyntje came to the Washington metropolitan area for college. He proceeded to earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in jazz studies, from the University of the District of Columbia and the University of Maryland, respectively. Still, he maintained, “Most of my musical education came from performing with great musicians and taking private lessons from elders on my instrument.”
Post-degrees, Cyntje decided to stay. “D.C. seemed like the perfect balance between the culture I grew up in and D.C.’s multicultural community, filled with jazz, go-go, gospel, afrobeat, salsa, poetry and funk.”
Not only is he the trombonist and composer for the Reginald Cyntje Group (RCG), the ensemble he formed in 1998 that has recorded four albums, but also he has two businesses: Cyntje Music, “a one-stop music boutique that includes booking, curating and assisting artists,” and Jegna School of Music, “a school that provides music lessons, workshops and mentoring concerts for intergenerational students.” In addition, the Montgomery College professor of music is the author of “Stepping Stones:15 studies in improvisation.”
Cyntje believes his composition skills have evolved since he first began “trying to find ways to capture thoughts and emotions.” He attributes his greater clarity to combining art and activism. “I think my music has become more focused, visual and adventurous,” he said. “Each album captures a different place in my development as an artist. Over the years, I’ve become more comfortable with expressing myself.”
RCG’s current lineup has been together for about a year, Cyntje said. “I’ve been up and down the East Coast with these musicians–Brian Settles (tenor sax), Hope Udobi (piano), Herman Burney (bass) and Lenny Robinson (drums). I like the energy of this new group.”
Having found that “listeners embrace the musical message when we travel to different cities,” Cyntje wants to tour more, citing South Africa as a destination for the near future. He hopes the Arts Barn audience attends his concert with an open mind. “Let the music create ripples in the imagination. Together, we can experience something new and fresh. That is the beauty of live music.”
Eight new compositions are on the program, and “if all goes well, we will record the music and release a live album later this year.”
Meanwhile, Cyntje said, “Personally, I aspire to grow, learn and enjoy life. After living that reality, I intend on capturing those experiences with music.
“I’m living my proudest moment. I’ve worked hard to get to this level professionally.”
Gaithersburg’s Arts on the Green will present the Reginald Cyntje Group at 8 p.m. Saturday, June 3, at the Arts Barn, 311 Kent Square Road. Admission is $25, $15 for ages18 and younger. Call 301-258-6394 or visit www.gaithersburgmd.gov. View this event on CultureSpotMC here.