A man of music, a disciple of God
There are handshakes, hugs and high-fives as Jack Madry enters the sanctuary of his church on Sunday morning and makes his way around the room, greeting worshippers before heading to the pulpit at the Madry Temple Church in New London.
His entrance is similar on a Thursday evening at VUE 24, the exclusive restaurant and lounge at the top of the Grand Pequot Tower at Foxwoods Resort Casino.
But as the venue's longtime jazz pianist, he sports an overcoat and his trademark fedora as he greets the hostess with a hug, then works his way around the bar, shaking hands, clapping shoulders and, finally, a high-five for a regular before sitting at the piano and beginning his first set with Cole Porter's "Night and Day."
For the next four hours, Madry will entertain guests, assessing the crowd before deciding whether to play a quiet tune or something more up tempo.
His repertoire is extensive, from John Coltrane, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys to Billy Joel, Adele, Ed Sheeran, Frank Sinatra, and the always sure to please "Take Five" by Dave Brubeck.
An ordained minister and accomplished pianist who has played for celebrities such as Steven Tyler, Lionel Richie and the late Katharine Hepburn, Madry sees no contradiction between his roles as a man of God and a man of music.
"I have no problem blending, melting the two together," he said. "I'm always a pastor first, and the casino is really a church without walls.
"But I see it as non-beneficial to see the same people all the time. It's sort of no good for church people to just talk to church people."
Entertaining casino guests, Madry said, "is another vehicle, another way, to spread the good news."
"The first thing people always ask is, 'What do you do full time?' and when I tell them, it presents an opportunity," he said, explaining that some people who hear him play at VUE 24 later attend services at his church.
A husband, father and grandfather, Madry, 61, attended New London High School for two years before graduating from Waterford High in 1973.
It was in his college years, when he began to suffer from depression, that he turned to the church he had grown up in, where his father was the pastor.
"Depression was the catalyst that got me to come to church," he said, after a recent Sunday service where he mentioned his depression as part of his sermon.
It still plagues him, he said later.
"I deal with it every day, but it's in a victorious nature," he said. "I know where my strength comes from. And it is manageable with God."
In 1957 his father, the late Rev. John R. Madry, founded the New London church that would later become known as the Madry Temple.
He continued as its pastor until 1991, when his son took over. But it wasn't an easy transition.
Jack Madry accepted the faith but not the traditions. His father's church was too strict, he believed, and he questioned whether the rules were biblical or manmade.
"Under my father's leadership, you didn't go to dances or parties. You did not drink a glass of wine, you did not listen to R&B, you did not listen to jazz. Though I was allowed to do it, it was not the norm of the church," he said.
But turning to God had helped quiet his depression, or at least gave him tools to deal with it, he said. So for a time, he gave up the things his father's church preached against, including his beloved music.
He wasn't playing the piano then, but he had an extensive and prized collection of jazz albums that he gave away.
But as Madry moved toward the ministry, he decided it would be on his terms, and eventually his father supported him.
He turned back to music when the congregation's organist and pianist left, around 1976. Madry, who was working as a cost analyst at Electric Boat, decided he would replace him and started teaching himself to play the piano.
"I was awful, terrible," he said.
But he kept at it, practicing relentlessly, listening to music and trying to replicate it. Sometimes he would play the same tune over and over, for three or four hours or longer, said his wife, Faye Rucker Madry.
The two met at church and married in 1974, just as Jack was sorting out his depression and clashing with his father about what their church should be.
It would be more than six years of self-instruction before Madry would study with classical and jazz pianists Gary Chapman and Dick Odgren, taking his music to a higher level and allowing him to leave EB in 1993 and support his family as a minister and a pianist.
He started out playing Friday nights at the Old Lyme Inn and Saturdays at the former Radisson hotel and Tony D's in New London, as well as other venues.
The mood of the room
In 1995, he got a gig at Foxwoods, rotating between the Atrium Lounge, Intermezzo Jazz Club, B.B. King Lounge, and other locations.
When the casino opened the exclusive Paragon on the 24th floor of the Grand Pequot Tower on New Year's Eve 1999, Madry was invited to play there and help ring in the millennium. He's been there ever since.
Recently, Paragon's name was changed to VUE 24, the décor and menu were updated, and a new chef arrived.
"They changed the name, but it doesn't change what Jack means to this place," Frank Winkler of Groton said.
He's been listening to Madry play at the casino for more than a decade.
"Jack has given this place its character. If Jack walked out, this place would lose its soul."
Sometimes, Winkler said, he will watch Madry at the piano, and it's almost as if he's in a trance.
"I know when he's in his zone," Winkler said. "You look over, and you can see it in his face. His music is almost religion. It warms the heart."
"When Jack is not here," longtime bartender Stephen Armitage said, "it's like watching a movie with no soundtrack. It just doesn't feel right."
Madry will survey the room, he said, gauge the crowd and play what's appropriate. If the crowd is young, he'll play more contemporary music. If they're older, he'll do the standards.
"He just has this innate understanding of what the room needs. He's what makes the whole room come together," Armitage said, adding that his favorite is Madry's version of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow."
"I just love listening when he plays it."
"I don't want to be an intrusion," Madry said of the choices he makes during his sets. "I don't want to get in the way of conversation. I want to fit into the room, I don't want to take it over."
"I am spiritually involved in my music when I'm playing it." It's an extension of his faith, he said. "I thank God when I start, and I thank Him when I'm finished. And every once in a while when I'm playing, I say under my breath, 'Thank you, God.'"
Madry gave up the job of playing piano at his church around 2010, when a fellow musician he met at Foxwoods, Steve Eist, took over.
Now Madry focuses on the worship service and his sermon, leaving the rousing music to his choirs and musicians.
Taking stock in where he once was — and in the journey he took to get to where he is today — makes Madry all the more grateful for his faith and accomplishments.
Back in 1990, when his father decided to turn his church over to his son, some members disagreed with the decision and left the congregation.
That exodus, his determination to learn to play the piano and his decision to leave EB all helped shape him, he said.
"When I look back, it was God's hands on me ... when that musician left our church, it forced me into areas that were impossible for me. But if you are zealous enough, diligent enough, strong enough to go through it, to be ridiculed as a musician, to go through the breakup of your church, then you have to make that decision to choose excellence or to just give up," he said.
He preferred excellence and launched his career as a pianist as he rebuilt his congregation.
He opened his church to everyone, including the downtrodden, and was one of the first churches in the city to welcome people with HIV/AIDs, some of whom are still members today.
"My ministry is a positive ministry based on my own experiences," he said. "My whole ministry is about uplifting, encouraging, energizing. It is motivational. When you come to our church service, you always have a little pep in your step when you leave, you feel a little lighter than when you came in."
And the music is a thread that binds it all together.
"I thank God for giving me this ability," he said. "I'm very passionate about music, and I thank God for the ability to have people enjoy my music as much as they do."
Jack and Lionel
Jack Madry has played for many notable people and celebrities at Foxwoods, but his most memorable performance was for singer, songwriter and musician Lionel Richie.
A huge fan, Madry said he was awed when Richie arrived early before other diners for dinner in the restaurant one night when he was playing, prior to Richie’s own performance at the casino. Richie listened for a while, and then came over to stand in front of Madry’s piano, complimenting him on his abilities.
“He said, ‘Man, I wish I could play like that,’ ” Madry recalled. “And that was the holy grail of compliments. I played very well for him. And I went home after and I couldn’t sleep that night.”
Madry has perfected both Adele's and Richie’s versions of “Hello,” and plays both at VUE 24.
— Ann Baldelli
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