Practicum Round 2: The SMARTACUS Top 50

If you’ve been following SMARTACUS, you’ll note we’ve created new channels by which to engage the young people of Saratoga Springs in creating brand-building content. Our proposed first step in launching Round 2 of our Practicum in Collaborative Media in January 2020 is to bring another 50 Interview Subjects — Voices of the Creative Economy — into the SMARTACUS Innovation Engine to make them easily available to students to interview.

If the Smart City Commission smiles on this initiative at its September 25th meeting — at which we’ll outline a year-long campaign to launch SMARTACUS, The Saratoga Innovation Center -- the 50 Writing Apprentices we’ll aim to enlist by December 31 will engage with these 50 community leaders, innovators and artists in our Innovation Engine and write full-length feature profiles to be published here in our Legacies series and on Saratoga Today’s Lifestyle page. If the Commission supports our proposal to bury the Saratoga 2056 Time Capsule on Mount McGregor, we’ll place them there, too.

We propose to sort our Top 50 by the following categories:

Garland Nelson: Changing the World One Note at a Time

GARLAND NELSON / Photo by Tracey buyce

GARLAND NELSON / Photo by Tracey buyce

Every artist is driven by a burning passion. For Garland Nelson, that passion is service towards others. 

“Service was the objective and music became the delivery mechanism,” he says. “It’s who I am as a man.”

Growing up in the Bed-Stuy and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn, Nelson had a love for all kinds of music.  He'd raid his uncle's massive record collection, admiring and mimicking all he heard -- a lot of B.T. Express, Commodores, and Earth, Wind & Fire. He had always enjoyed singing along and harmonizing, but had never attempted to turn his passion into a career until one fateful day when, two years after graduating from Skidmore College, he went to an Open Mic Night at Bailey's Cafe, the Saratoga Springs nightspot previously known as the Golden Grill, which was "the city's last black club, so to speak." 

"Even after the remodel, there was still a spiritual power to this place,” Nelson recalls. "Open Mic Night attracted everyone who was in the local scene, mostly hailing from a 
folksy kind of background.” 

Singing a cappella, Nelson performed "Let's Stay Together" by Al Green, "Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight" by James Taylor, and a gospel song, "He Looked Beyond My Faults." 

"People were like turning around and saying 'Oh, my God, who is this guy?'  I said, “Thank you very much” and everyone was clapping like crazy. A friend chased me into the bathroom and said, "What you just did tonight, I want you to do next week." 

From that moment on, “it was off and running,” says Nelson. 

Exploring New Genres

"As I began my career, it became evident to me that the thing that made me feel best about helping people also coincided with this artistic expression," he says. "They just kind of found each other.” 

In 2001 he joined a regional nine-piece band called the New York Players. Three years into his five-year tenure, he joined three friends in creating Soul Session, a soul singer-fronted acoustic outfit that has become a mainstay on the fundraising, private parties, and wedding circuits in the Capital Region and around the country. 

Nelson has an almost magical ability to connect with audiences, the result of a decision he made early in his career to be an entertainer, performing all styles of music for a wide demographic: classic R&B, Hip Hop, worldbeat, and more. He had not acquired a love for rock, but he knew his audiences liked it, and so, he says, "I had to diversify quick. I had to have an appreciation for that diversity, and develop a love to go into this music." 

Nelson’s intuitive side took over and he developed a fascination with understanding how recordings were produced. This helped him not only understand the artistic complexity that went into developing this music, but truly enjoy the music. 

He hasn't lost his love for the music he grew up with. That would always hold a place in his heart, but he began exploring, and excelling at, different genres. 

Continuity is Success

In 1999, Nelson was selected to represent New York State in a national talent competition, and was flown to Nashville to compete against performers from the other 49 states. While waiting in the green room for the 'Ns' to perform, Nelson started singing and harmonizing with the competition for creative fun. Rather than being intimidated by these remarkable musicians, Nelson saw this as an opportunity and began to think about how incredible it would be to work with talent like them back home.

'I was no longer seeing it from a competition perspective. What I noticed instantly and what changed in me was that everyone has something to get out of themselves.” 

This helped fuel the business aspect of Nelson’s career. In this moment, the "producer" aspect of his career began. Nelson had a blast being able to just jam out with all of these talented musicians regardless of the competition's outcome. 

Nelson didn’t win in the end. Looking back, he thinks this may have been for the best. He enjoys the freedom of being able to perform anywhere, anytime. While he thinks it would be great to perform at Madison Square Garden and make it big, he also knows there are tradeoffs. "That’s a different kind of success where you can’t sit down at Spot coffee and just kick it without being inundated by 40 million people.”

Everyone has to figure out what level they want and how they view and value success. For Nelson, "continuity is success for me.”

Nelson is an all-star talent whom the Saratoga community is fortunate to have. He can be found performing at various locations in the area, such as the Diamond Club Restaurant and Firestone 151. On May 18, Soul Session will perform at the American Cancer Society's 2019 Gala of Hope.

Jake Somoza.JPG

A senior in Jill Cowburn's journalism class at Saratoga Springs High School, Jake Somoza has a dual interest in journalism and sports, runs the 400 and 800 meters on the track team, and sings in the SSHS choir. 


Launching Our Alliance with Saratoga Today





Friday's publication of Saratoga Today marked a milestone in the evolution of the SMARTACUS Creative Group as a student-driven creative agency. On page 18 of ST's print edition and here on their web site, the paper published Ben Weatherwax's fine profile of the indefatigable Teddy Foster, director of Universal Preservation Hall's capital campaign and the huge renovation's driving force for more than a decade. 

Ben interviewed Ms. Foster and produced this profile in the Practicum in Collaborative Media we launched last November with Saratoga Springs High School journalism teacher Jill Cowburn. A senior, Ben is president of the SSHS Chamber Orchestra and a member of the varsity rowing team who also enjoys fishing and skiing.

Seated in the SMARTACUS Collaboration Engine in Basecamp, Ms. Cowburn's 25 students "drafted"  25 community leaders, innovators and artists in Upstate New York's creative economy to interview and spotlight in an 800-word feature article. As our students complete these stories in consultation with their subjects, Saratoga Today will publish them on their web site. As space permits, they may also publish these stories in their weekly print edition, as they did with Ben’s profile of Teddy Foster.

Introducing Legacies

For each of our subjects, we’re aiming to capture in these stories the creative passion that drives them and the legacies they seek to leave, and so we call this our Legacy series. Well into summer, you’ll find every Thursday on Saratoga Today's site another installment. In alphabetical order by the student’s first name, here’s our lineup:

  • Adelle Feeley's profile of Vice Chair of Sustainable Saratoga Bill Boehmke

  • Aidan Rice's profile of Saratoga Springs High School Principal Michelle Tsao

  • Alexandria White's profile of Saratoga Spicery founder Susi Kerr

  • Carter Kavanagh's profile of serial entrepreneur and educator Robert Manasier

  • Eliza Gifford's profile of Pleasant Valley Farmer co-proprietor Sandy Arnold 

  • Emma Kelly's profile of Saratoga Film Academy founder Jon Dorflinger

  • Ethan Kopraski's profile of Adirondack folk singer Dan Berggren

  • Grace Alberti's profile of Caffe Lena Executive Director Sarah Craig

  • Grace Davis's profile of Wellspring Executive Director Maggie Fronk

  • Jake Somoza's profile of entertainer and educator Garland Nelson

  • Julia Sanders' profile of retired GE engineer and gardener extraordinaire Murray Penney

  • Kate Manor's profile of C.R.E.A.T.E. Studio co-founder Julianne Lewis

  • Kristen Lauricella's profile of Upstate Alliance for the Creative Economy Executive Director Maureen Sager

  • Kyle Ouimet's profile of Saratoga County Chamber of Commerce President Todd Shimkus

  • Mia Brown's profile of Maidbot founder Micah Green

  • Padraig Bond's profile of Saratoga Farmers Market Executive Director Julia Howard

  • Quinn Jones' profile of filmmaker Roger Wyatt

  • Ryan Ragaini's profile of Petal + Hive founder Jillian Ehrenberg

  • Sophie Cianfarani's profile of Saratoga Springs Performing Arts Center President and CEO Elizabeth Sobol

  • Tyler Charnik's profile of North Country architect Brooks Washburn

  • Vin L'Hommedieu's profile of Saratoga Springs School Superintendent Michael Patton

It's been a great pleasure to work with Ms. Cowburn and all of her students in developing this series and exploring the power of collaborative media in this Practicum. I look forward to seeing how things might evolve in a "round two" of the Practicum beginning this fall.