George Colligan, once a self-professed "band nerd" at Columbia's Centennial High School, will return to his hometown Wednesday for a concert, having achieved international recognition as a jazz pianist.
Even after releasing 14 CDs as a bandleader and playing on more than 50 others with some of the top jazz players in the world, Colligan, 34, of Brooklyn, N.Y., said he is happy to share his music with local audiences.
"If people come out, I'll play for whoever is going to listen," he said.
Colligan will be a featured guest with the Howard Community College Faculty Jazz Ensemble, which includes clarinetist and leader Kyle Coughlin, bassist Jeff Reed and drummer Mike Kuhl.
The concert will include jazz standards and original works by Colligan and Coughlin, who organized the event.
The two became friends at Peabody Institute when Coughlin was a graduate student and Colligan was an undergraduate. Colligan later became director of the student jazz ensemble.
"He is just an incredible musician," Coughlin said.
Colligan was born in Summit, N.J., and moved to Columbia with his family in 1974, when he was 5. His diverse neighborhood "was like a microcosm of America," he said.
He started to listen to his father's jazz records when he was in middle school and to albums by Miles Davis, Clifford Brown and Dizzy Gillespie that a neighbor lent him.
"To me jazz is ... a little bit more open for possibilities," he said. "By nature, I'm very into improvising and being in the moment and being constantly creative."
He added, "I don't think jazz is necessarily just a style. It can incorporate many different styles. It is less of a style and more of an attitude."
He started playing trumpet with teacher Lee Stevens at Harper's Choice Middle School and took private lessons with Stevens during high school. He said Stevens was "very inspirational. He was very passionate about [music], and it kind of rubbed off on me."
Colligan pursued the trumpet as a music education major at Peabody. But, he said, at the college level, "I became much more frustrated with the instrument."
He started practicing more piano, on which he had a few lessons as a child, and when he graduated he switched to that instrument.
As he started getting gigs in Baltimore and Washington, "It seemed like that was where [his career] was going."
He said, "That's very hard, I think, to change instruments. I think I've had to work harder than most pianists to kind of catch up." Colligan moved to New York in 1995 and continued to build his musical reputation.
He has toured, recorded or performed with dozens of well-known jazz musicians. He spent three years with Cassandra Wilson and appeared with her in the 2001 movie The Score. He plays regularly with clarinetist Don Byron and bassist Buster Williams.
Colligan said he understands why his teacher discouraged him from becoming a full-time musician.
"Even for people at the highest levels of professional music, you never know where your next gig is going to come from," he said. "That is hard for me, and it continues to be a challenge."
The concert featuring Colligan is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. in HCC's Smith Theater, 10901 Little Patuxent Parkway, Columbia. Tickets are $15, $10 for senior citizens and $5 for students. Information: 410-772- 4914.