ASCC Hosts International Jazz Day Presentation
May 7, 2015
By James Kneubuhl, ASCC Press Officer
Earlier this month, in celebration of International Jazz Day, the Fine Arts Department at the American Samoa Community College (ASCC), hosted a talk by Samoana Jazz & Arts Festival Director Ms. Peta Siulepa, who is also a professional Jazz singer of some acclaim throughout New Zealand, Samoa and the Pacific region. Before an appreciative audience of ASCC staff and students, Ms. Siulepa shared the history of International Jazz Day and highlighted Samoa’s small but significant place in the history of Jazz as the birthplace of renowned vocalist Mavis Chloe Rivers (1929-1992).
Ms. Siulepa explained that the United Nations General Assembly, at its 36th session in 2011, declared April 30 of each year as International Jazz Day to celebrate the historical, cultural, and educational contribution of this popular genre of music. The event aims to spread international awareness of Jazz and to promote the cultural and social values that Jazz stands for. “International Jazz Day is celebrated in 200 countries around the world,” said Ms. Siulepa, “and this year both the Independent State of Samoa and American Samoa are part of this global celebration.”
Ms. Siulepa referred to Samoa as “the birthplace of Jazz in the Pacific” by virtue of it being the starting place for the career of Mavis Rivers, who rose from humble beginnings in Upolu to a developing artist in Tutuila to an internationally acclaimed Jazz recording artist. One of 12 children, Mavis got her start singing with the band her father, saxophonist Moody Rivers, led in Upolu in the late 1930s. Following the outbreak of World War ll, the Rivers family transitioned to Pago Pago to entertain the many American troops stationed in the Territory at the time. Although still in her teens, Mavis was soon known as the “singing mascot” for the troops during this era, and also gained a wider knowledge of Jazz through the records these American soldiers brought with them.
Following the war, the Rivers family settled in New Zealand, where Mavis’s development as a professional singer progressed rapidly. Performing regularly, between 1949 and 1953 she was repeatedly voted as the top New Zealand vocalist and became the country’s first female recording artist. “Even today,” recounted Ms. Siulepa, “Mavis Rivers is still celebrated as New Zealand’s finest-ever Jazz vocalist.”
Mavis first came to the United States in 1953 on a scholarship to study business at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. Following her studies, she briefly returned to American Samoa and worked as a radio announcer, but soon relocated again to Los Angeles to take her first music job as a ukulele-playing singer with the Uncle Johnny Ukulele Band. As her repertoire eventually shifted from ukulele music back to Jazz, she came to the attention of Capitol Records, the label of stars such as Frank Sinatra and Sammy Davis Jr. at the time. From the late 1950s to the early 1980s, Mavis enjoyed a career as one of America’s prime Jazz singers, and Sinatra himself once described her as having “the purest Jazz voice I’ve ever heard.” Her career lasted until her untimely passing in 1992 at the age of 63.
Ms. Siulepa shared that the 2015 Samoana Jazz & Arts Festival, slated to take place in October, will be dedicated to the life and legacy of Mavis Rivers, and will include a performance by a 13 piece orchestra led by Mavis’ son La’auli Matt Catingub, himself a renowned figure today as a Symphonic and Jazz music artist in Honolulu. She also extended the invitation for musicians and artists from ASCC to participate. “We hope to see musicians from ASCC emerge and perform,” she said, “and we would also love to see artists and their work being highlighted.”
ASCC Fine Arts Department chair Mr. Kuki Tuiasosopo said that a group of music students, under the direction of Music instructor Mr. Poe Mageo, have begun working on some Jazz pieces for inclusion in their orchestral repertoire, and while no commitments have been made, a performance at the 2015 Festival remains a possibility. “We appreciate Ms. Siulepa’s invitation,” he said, “and we’re delighted that she shared with us the history of Jazz in the Pacific. It’s rare to have professional artists on island, and we try to bring them to campus when possible to share their experiences and insights with our students.
For more information on the Fine Art Department’s course offerings, view the ASCC Catalog on the College’s web page at www.amsamoa.edu.