All that jazz: Rich scene for local jazz fans

Story by Chris Graham

That the jazz industry is struggling is a perverse paradox for local jazz fans.
“If you draw a 50-mile circle around Staunton, within that 50-mile circle there are some tremendous jazz guys that are way underemployed, and so I can get really good players for not a whole lot of money,” said Lew Morrison, a local jazz musician and one of the founders of the ongoing Jazz in the Park concert series, which dates to 1988 and is getting under way again for the 2009 season on Thursday, July 9, with a concert at Gypsy Hill Park in Staunton featuring the Young Rascals Jazz Project. 

And so it is that we get to hear jazz players who shuttle back and forth to New York doing what they can to keep busy in between their NYC gigs here in the Valley and Central Virginia. The Charlottesville jazz scene is particularly hoppin’ in that respect. A benefit for the Artisans Center of Virginia in June brought out some of the local all-stars, including Hod O’Brien, a jazz legend dating back to what he did on the piano at the height of the 1950s bebop scene who keeps his fingers limber as part of a jazz-piano duo named 2×88 that he formed earlier this year with Jim Wray.

2×88 warmed up the crowd at the Artisans Center event for the likes of Laurence Elder, a Miami transplant and self-described “heavy-duty jazzer” who regularly plays the New York club scene. “There’s a nice vibe here,” Elder said of the local jazz community.

“I’m constantly amazed, to tell you the truth,” said Gary Funston, a member of the board of directors of the Charlottesville Jazz Society who has hosted his own weekly jazz show on WTJU-FM in Charlottesville for 18 years. “We have several musicians here in Charlottesville who could easily make it in New York City. And then you’ve got a tier just below that who are incredibly talented people making a living teaching, playing, touring. It’s a rich scene here,” Funston said.

As it is on the other side of the Blue Ridge as well. “There are some world-class musicians here who for one reason or another have ended up in Virginia. Some of them chose to come here because it’s a great place to live. I didn’t necessarily plan to live in Virginia, but it just so happened that the job at JMU was open, and I was lucky enough to get it. We’re sort of an interesting club,” said David Pope, a music professor at James Madison University who also plays some mean John Coltrane-inspired saxophone when he gets the chance.

You can hear a little Ella Fitzgerald on Tuesday nights at The Dining Room in Downtown Staunton channeled through the medium of jazz vocalist Jennifer Kirkland. Kirkland, like Pope and other local jazz favorites, sort of just ended up here, after getting out of the music business for 15 years following a “crisis of confidence” that she sweated out a few years back before linking up with jazz guitarist Bert Carlson and getting back into the swing of things.

“I have been amazed at not only how much there is for Staunton to have two weekly jazz gigs, but also the number of house concerts, and folks saying, I’d like to introduce people to your music,” said Kirkland, citing the undercurrent of gigs at local wineries and vineyards and that long-running Jazz in the Park series. “The quantity of things you see here, and also the quality – we’ve got people who come here from all over the place, and the quality of play is pretty amazing. I’ve been really, really impressed with what we have here,” Kirkland said.

Everybody has an opinion on what ails jazz at the macro level, and the opinions boil down to a common thematic element. “It’s such a sophisticated form of music that I think intellectually it loses an awful lot of people due to that,” Morrison opined. “It’s just a matter of conditioning. Back about 50 years ago, it was considered pop music, so everybody was into it, but now it’s not, and I just think it intellectualled itself off into the corner,” he said.

“One of the things that can be offputting to people about jazz is that they can think it’s inaccessible, or they think it’s some sort of big mystery. To me, jazz is simply a way of approaching music. It’s just a way of being creative with music,” Kirkland said.

What can be offputting and overintellectual about jazz can also be the source of the continued appeal of the music to listeners and to commercial interests. I talked with Rhonda Ward, one of the co-owners of The Dining Room, about the weekly Tuesday-night jazz nights featuring Kirkland and Carlson, and Ward told me that getting the duo on the weekly schedule was a top priority from early on.

“It was one of the first things we made arrangements for,” said Ward, who made jazz night a priority from the outset because jazz “brings a sense of relaxation and fun, which we really wanted to express to our customers as to what The Dining Room was.”
“What we wanted you to do when you came here was have a good time, and what better way to do that than have the adult version of musical entertainment, jazz,” Ward said.

“We get a lot of tourists, businesspeople in town who want to have dinner and entertainment afterward. The jazz has been great for us. We’re full up on Tuesdays. The reservations start coming in Tuesday morning, and we fill up regularly,” Ward said.

Which is why I raised the issue of perverse paradox at the start of this. Jazz music clearly still has the attention of enough people for local restaurant owners to schedule regular gigs knowing that they’re going to make money doing so, but not enough that the impressive talents that we have here locally can expect to go on to make their mint in the big city and eventually in the recording industry.

Jazz is a niche industry, like literary fiction in the book industry, like soccer in sports. All have their devoted fans who swear by what they have to offer, and all will do well for themselves, even if the rest of the world misses out on the fun that the diehards are having.

 

Sidebar – Names and Places
– Jennifer Kirkland – www.jenniferkirkland.net
– Hod O’Brien – www.hodobrien.com
– Jim Wray – www.yojimbojazzband.biz
– Laurence Elder – www.laurenceelder.com
– Charlottesville Jazz Society – www.cvillejazz.com


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