It was 20 years ago when a new guitar teacher first proposed a plan to host a concert with local players to raise some money and awareness in his fledgling music program. Today, the event is still going strong, and the players are now coming from the national stage to help promote Don Casper’s guitar programs at Douglas Anderson School of the Arts and the LaVilla Performing Arts School.
It started small, but over the years has grown into a signature event, drawing guitar enthusiasts from across the southeast. “It’s hard to believe. When I first started, my budget was even lower than what it is now. The first few years were all local artists, and that was fun, and I thought I was just going to keep it that way. But local artists just aren’t going to draw that many people, so I just started upping it and trying to get some national artists,” Casper says. “I’m excited that it’s grown and that it’s lasted this long. I hope that I can keep it going. I have been fortunate to get some of the best talent on the planet. Those that are in the know seem to keep an eye out for the event over the years, so that’s a good feeling.”
Casper has booked some of the best guitar players in the industry even if they aren’t the most well-known. This year, featured artists Roland Dyens and Michael Chapdelaine are both returning after playing the event seven or eight years ago. Dyens, a French composer, arranger and recipient of several distinguished awards, is widely considered “the guiding light of classical guitar” and Casper boasts that, “if there has ever been anyone that is on the verge of being a genius, this guy is one of them.”
Michael Chapdelaine is also a classically trained guitarist who has earned the distinction of one of the top finger-stylists in guitar. He is the only guitarist ever to win first prize in the world’s top competitions in both the classical and finger-style genres. “Michael is just so much fun,” Casper says. “Here’s a guy that has won some of the top prizes in classical guitar and has a bunch of albums out, and he kind of switched over to something that’s a lot more fun.”
While Dyens and Chapdelaine are not considered mainstream artists, students in the guitar programs at both DASOTA and LaVilla study their compositions and interact directly with the artists during exclusive workshops and clinics. Eventually, Casper hopes to be able to open the workshops up to the public and to turn the gathering into a two-day event with a night of solo guitarists in the classical and finger-styles and a second night with a more electric focus that showcases the top blues and jazz players throughout the country.
“The whole guitar program at Douglas Anderson and LaVilla is solely due to Don’s involvement. He pretty much started these programs, and he’s been there ever since,” says Kent Smedley, a local guitarist and private instructor who performs with Casper in a guitar quartet. “He thought of the Great Guitar Gathering as a way to promote the program and bring world-class talent to the city. I know it is very important to the students. They really love it.”
Casper says his motivation for creating a gathering of superior guitar players was three-fold. His original incentive was raising money to fund the continuous need for new instruments, strings, tuning forks and other materials imperative to the programs. Education was also an important component for Casper, who sought ways to help keep the students engaged in all of their academic and artistic pursuits.
The third was personal growth. “It really provides an outlet for these students. The arts in general are just so important in so many ways. It’s very much like sports. It not only gives them an outlet for creativity, but it teaches them so many other things. It teaches them a certain discipline and how to work with a group,” Casper says.
Because the level of talent is considered top-notch, the Great Guitar Gathering is defined as a premier event for guitar aficionados and helps expose the community to a higher caliber of artist. “We get to introduce the city of Jacksonville to some of these great players. They are not household names, but they are the best of the best,” Casper says. “You bring in someone like Eric Clapton, and it sells out in a day, but some of these guys that we are bringing in, Eric Clapton would listen to and go, ‘Oh my God, these guys are fabulous’.”
Smedley calls Casper “a tireless supporter of guitar” and notes his efforts change the perception of the guitar and its possibilities. While performing with the quartet, Smedley says he is often approached by people surprised by the delicate, precise elements of the classical guitar that are associated more with violin and piano.
“He has worked continuously to keep the program going and constantly elevate the standards for guitar at the schools,” says Smedly of Casper. “He has really fostered a lot of educated, creative guitarists who have gone on to do a lot of really great things.”
The journey from the school stage to the historic Florida Theatre has been a wild ride, and Casper is not in any danger of losing steam. He is grateful for the momentum that has the artists and promoters reaching out to him to join in the Great Guitar Gathering and hopes that they will realize just as many benefits from their participation.
“The guys that I am getting are at the top of their game in their particular genres, but they aren’t the type of artists that would normally be coming to Jacksonville, because most promoters don’t know about these guys or are focused more on a different art form. So it’s pretty neat to get these emails from these guys that would like to be part of this program. It’s a really good thing for everyone involved,” Casper says. “There are so many brilliant artists out there in all of these genres. It’s kind of cool to do all of these things. The fundraising part doesn’t always work, but as long as I am breaking even, I feel like it’s a success.”
The event is at 7:30 pm on February 22 at The Florida Theatre, 128 E. Forsyth Street (www.floridatheatre.org). Tickets are $23.50 and available at the theatre box office or by calling DASOTA at 346-5620.