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Grammy-Winning State College Native Returns to State Theatre for 'Homecoming of the Chief'

by on May 07, 2019 5:00 AM

Ian Hendrickson-Smith, a four-time Grammy Award winner and 1992 graduate of State College Area High School, is returning to his hometown on Friday for a special concert at the State Theatre titled “Homecoming of the Chief.”

A world-renowned saxophonist and flutist who plays with The Roots on "The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon," Hendrickson-Smith was born in New Orleans but grew up in State College. He studied jazz performance at the Manhattan School of Music before beginning his professional music career in 1996, and since then he's become a sought-after musician by artists spanning a wide range of genres.

Hendrickson-Smith most recently performed at the State Theatre on Jan. 22, 2010 with Sharon Jones & the Dap-Kings. When he makes his return performance on Friday, he'll be joined by pianist David Hazeltine, drummer Joe Strasser, and double-bassist David “Happy” Williams.

Prior to the 8 p.m. show, the quartet is holding a free of charge master class at 5:30 p.m. for children and their parents to come learn and be entertained.

“It’s hugely important to give back whenever possible,” Hendrickson-Smith said. “I think it’s going to be great for the kids. We’ll have a lot of different opinions about things. I think it’ll be great for the kids to meet me and hear about my experiences growing up in Central Pennsylvania and the various steps that it took me to be able to have a career in music in New York.”

Hendrickson-Smith said he originally started playing the flute, but got serious about saxophone when he was 17 or 18. However, it was several years earlier when he first realized he was going to dedicate his life to music.

“I think I knew pretty early on,” he said. “Probably 12 years old or something like that. I think the second I figured out I had some ability, I kind of made that decision at that point.”

Although Hendrickson-Smith has worked with scores of legendary musicians like Bob Dylan, Stevie Wonder, Prince, Lady Gaga, and Amy Winehouse throughout his career, he always makes sure to mention the mentors who helped him get to where he is today.

“I was very lucky to have great teachers,” he said. “Diane Gold was my flute instructor. Steve Bowman was my saxophone teacher. Then I had a series of great public school teachers -- Bob Labarca, John Kovalchik, and Rich Victor. Their influence on me is pretty profound. They were all very supportive but also very honest with me about what the odds are of success and having a career in music. I feel very fortunate in that sense.”

As far as musical influences go, Hendrickson-Smith said he’s drawn inspiration from a wide variety of artists, including “Cannonball” Adderley, Jackie McLean, Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges, Wayne Shorter, Yusef Lateef, Led Zeppelin, and Metallica -- not to mention his more classical taste in Ravel, Bach, and Mozart.

Hendrickson-Smith, who practices music every day, said one of the best parts of playing with The Roots on a nightly basis is that it keeps him sharp and on his toes, because he never knows what will be thrown at him.

“The great thing about that gig is working with Questlove and Black Thought,” he said. “The two of them as band leaders, they make it really challenging and you never know what you’re going to be asked to do. It’s the same thing with the show. You never know if I’m going to be wearing a rabbit suit one day or if I’m going to be playing with Chaka Khan one day.

“You just don’t know what’s going to be thrown at you. It’s a challenge musically speaking and it’s just a challenge to be sharp every single day and show up and have your A-plus game, because that’s really what it’s about in the end.”

Hendrickson-Smith also shared what audience members can expect from Friday’s performance at the State Theatre.

“It’s going to be a mixture of originals and American Songbook,” Hendrickson-Smith said. “It’s going to be very swinging and fun, interesting and exciting. That’s the best way I can put it. Kind of a mixture of intellectual and party jazz all put together. It’s going to be a lot of fun. That’s the short answer.”

For tickets, visit the State Theatre website.

Ethan Kasales is a Lemont native and staff writer for Onward State.
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