Reflections On The Revitalized Local Jazz Scene
With the creation of "Metro Louisville" and the sudden charge up the national population charts to number 16, it is time to ask what makes a city great. Merely having enough people within a political boundary line area to achieve a number on a growth chart is not enough. The business environment, the ecosystem, the political structure, the educational system and much more must all aspire to greatness.
Historically, a key line of demarcation between the great cities and the smaller towns has been the availability of cultural opportunities. As this is written, the fate of the Louisville Orchestra is clouded with uncertainty due to fiscal restraints. Other major arts organizations are also finding they must tighten their belts in these lean times. Yet despite this, Louisville is experiencing not a decline, but a growth spurt in opportunities to hear jazz, certainly a major American contribution to the arts.
In just the past few months, the Jazz Factory has opened in the historic Main Street corridor. The Seelbach Hotel has formally recognized the importance of Dick Sisto's ongoing presentation of jazz in its bar by renaming it the Seelbach Jazz Bar. Many non-jazz clubs are featuring jazz performers on a regular basis, as well. The Courier-Journal most recently has provided a preview of the Fred Hersch Trio's performance for the Louisville Jazz Society (LJS) (May 9, 2003), as well as coverage of the LJS and jazz on the air at WFPK-FM in a front page feature in its Arts Section on May 11, 2003. Not to be outdone, LEO highlighted the Hersch performance in its "Hot Picks" (May 9, 2003). Back in February, the C-J offered a front page, Arts Section feature on the U of L Jazz Week and LEO even made it a cover story. Even Business First plans to publish a feature on the local jazz scene (currently scheduled for its July 25, 2003 issue). The University of Louisville's School of Music has expanded its Jazz Department in both quantity and quality, while Bellarmine University continues to provide an additional higher educational opportunity for aspiring jazz musicians. In fact, the Spring 2003 issue of U of L Magazine featured "Giant Steps: U of L's Jazz Studies Program" as its cover story, relegating stories about deterring bioterrorism and the 1983 U of L-UK NCAA "Dream Game" to secondary status.
While I am not usually one to toss around words like "synergy," it is difficult to come up with a better description of what is going on in the Louisville jazz community and, more importantly, its recognition outside the sometimes closed circles of the hardcore jazz scene. While there has been a jazz presence in Louisville since almost the earliest days of the art form, it has never really crossed over into mainstream acceptance. Jazz clubs have come and gone and some of our best and brightest local talents have left our city to make a living performing jazz. Yet the events of the past several months seem to indicate that jazz may well be on a roll here. Whereas for many years, one had to travel to Cincinnati, Indianapolis, Chicago, or elsewhere to see top performers, it is now possible to hear not only our highly talented local musicians, but some of the finest nationally recognized performers in the genre without driving past the newly drawn city limits.
What makes a city great? While a thriving jazz scene is certainly not the entire answer to the question, it is an important part of the answer. More than western classical music, more than pop and rock music, more than country and bluegrass music, more than even city blues (as opposed to the country or rural blues), jazz has been a hallmark of urban culture through much of the twentieth century. Perhaps Louisville is really on its way to being recognized as not just a bigger city, but a great city with the patina of urbanity which makes for true city life.
RECENT CONCERTS AND EVENTS
Without question, the Fred Hersch Trio's recent concert, sponsored by the Louisville Jazz Society at the Jazz Factory, was among the premiere events this past month. As I was in New Orleans when Hank Marr and Sonny Fortune performed, I can only assume that they were also superb. From the trio's opening number, Thelonious Monk's "Work" to its last song, Monk's "Think of One" the musicians demonstrated the twin virtues of restraint and enthusiasm. "Work" opened with a cappella piano by Hersch, before bassist Drew Gress and drummer Nasheet Waits joined him. Waits' drumming was frequently reminiscent of Monk's long-time drummer, Ben Riley, with constant restrained soloing rather than just "keeping time." During the first set, three Hersch originals were interspersed among the interpretations of Monk, Ornette Coleman ("Forerunner") and Jimmy Rowles (the jazz standard "The Peacocks") and the pop standard "You Don't Know What Love Is." The first Hersch composition performed was a sound portrait of an evening in New Hampshire, entitled "Endless Stars," with Waits changing from sticks to brushes to accompany a Gress solo. The next original, "Phantom of the Bopera," was a fast piece dedicated to the late saxophonist Joe Henderson, with whom Hersch used to work. Perhaps the most stunningly original of Hersch's compositions followed, "Black Dog Pays a Visit." Hersch introduced this song by saying that this was about depression. Following a mallet introduction by Waits, the three musicians seemed to probe the stormy emotions of true depression, ranging from violent anger to withdrawal.
The second set opened with "I Fall In Love Too Easily," another standard, often associated with Miles Davis. Hersch followed that with two more original compositions, "Stuttering," a quirky fast-paced waltz and "Days Gone By," written for fellow Ohio native Tim Hagans, a jazz trumpeter who has appeared with Joe Lovano among many others. "Some Other Time" was the last pop standard of the evening, followed by a reading of Monk's "Think of One." It was during the last trio piece that an even higher level of interaction between the musicians played out, with the slower opening and closing sections being divided by a remarkable fast tempo interlude that demonstrated the communication that can take place when top flight improvisers have the opportunity to work together over time. A much deserved encore was a short but lovely solo performance by Hersch of the Billy Strayhorn composition, "Lotus Blossom."
For those who have not yet had a chance to check out the Jazz Factory, it's at 815 W. Main Street in the Glassworks complex (web: www.jazzfactory.us [not ."com"]; phone: 992-3242. It is a short flight downstairs from the entrance of the Glassworks and thus carries on a jazz tradition of sorts, the "Basement jazz club." The ambiance is warm and inviting, with exposed brick accented by intriguing artwork along the right-hand wall. The left side is mostly taken up by the bar, a long "L" shaped affair. Seating is available at the bar on stools and in the rest of the club at tables. Based on my visit for the Fred Hersch Trio, I found that near the bandstand, by the short end of the bar, the sound was a little loud, but not so loud as to overcome the occasional distractions of bar noise. From a table about two-thirds of the way back from the stage, the sound seemed much better balanced, with the bass more clearly audible during the ensemble sections of the performance. Throughout the evening, the absence of tobacco smoke was noted with appreciation. [Note: a different version of this review is in the Louisville Jazz Society Newsletter.]
ON THE HORIZON
As a service to Louisville-area jazz fans, the Louisville Jazz Society (LJS) maintains an e-mail mailing list which sends out announcements of local jazz events. Although the LJS certainly encourages membership (disclaimer: I am on the Board), this service is not limited to LJS members. If you wish to be added, send your e-mail address to: email@example.com. Tell'em "Jazzin'" sent ya.
Besides the array of nightly (except Mondays) local and regional artists, the Jazz Factory has announced that Freddie Cole will perform on June 13 and 14. You can reach the Jazz Factory at 502-992-3242, or online at www.jazzfactory.us (not ."com").
The 2003 Bellarmine Jazz Guitar Clinic, always a welcome beginning to summer, will be held this year on June 2 and 3. The concert, featuring this year's guest instructors John Stowell and Ron Affif, will be Monday, June 2 at 7:30 in Wyatt Hall on the Bellarmine University campus. For more information about this event, contact Bellarmine Faculty member and guitarist extraordinaire Jeff Sherman via e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. For those unfamiliar with these artists, Stowell became well known in the late 1970s and 1980s for his work with bassist David Friesen in some wonderful duet albums, as well as working with Paul Horn and others. Affif is a New York based guitarist whose playing emphasizes his love of melody, not just improvisation for its own sake.
Internal medicine specialist Ken Beilman, M.D., is also an accomplished pianist. He will donate the proceeds from his new Nightfall CD to the Jefferson County Medical Society Medical Foundation, which funds such programs as SOS (Supplies Over Seas), providing recycled medical equipment and supplies to Third World and war-torn countries. Beilman composed and performed all of the compositions and recorded them in his basement studio with drummer Terry O'Mahoney. It is Beilman's first commercially available recording and is available at ear X-tacy Records, Cox's Drugs on Preston Highway and on his own website at www.kenbeilman.com. According to the liner notes by Chris Fitzgerald, a jazz instructor at Bellarmine and U of L, Nightfall has a mixture of rock, fusion, straight ahead jazz, a ballad and even a hip-hop tune.
IN THE AREA
The June calendar for the Blue Wisp (318 East 8th St., Cincinnati, OH 45202 was not received in time for this column, but the May calendar did note that trumpeter Brad Goode was scheduled for June 1. For updates, you can call the club at 513-241-WISP or check its website, www.bluewispjazzclub.com) The Jazz Kitchen (5377 N College Ave., Indianapolis, IN 46220; phone: 317-253-4900; www.thejazzkitchen.com) will present the Buster Williams Quartet on Monday, June 2, 2003 According to an e-mail from Williams, his quartet includes Casey Benjamin on Alto Sax, George Colligan on Piano and the well known former Return to Forever drummer, Lenny White. I forwarded his e-mail to the Jazz Factory in hopes that Williams might find a local booking, but at press time, I have not heard from the Jazz Factory as to whether it is pursuing this as a possibility. Meanwhile, stay tuned for an upcoming Charlie Hunter gig at the Jazz Kitchen.
I welcome and request your input and feedback. Please e-mail me at email@example.com. Until next month, please support jazz on the radio and in the clubs and concert halls. Otherwise, you'll miss it when it's no longer available.