The Death Knell Tolls Not for Jazz

Dec 25, 2013

Mike DiRubbo and Steve Davis perform.
Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

The perennial lament that jazz is dead had no validity in our region, the geographical Jazz Corridor between New York and Boston, in 2013. In fact, the past year abounded with many robust life signs, and a promising prognosis for a long, relatively healthy life for America’s original, perhaps most endangered, yet somehow most remarkably resilient art form.

Vibrant life signs in 2013 were, in fact, everywhere.

If the death knell is tolling for jazz, as the morbidly grim forecasters of its imminent demise have long been prophesying, it’s not ringing very loudly in our part of New England. Here, innumerable local strongholds — both for-profit and non-profit venues — cater quite happily to the jazz faithful, a highly desirable demographic group that might be relatively small in number, but is extremely large in terms of devotion to the music, total awareness of its past, and support for and firm belief in its future.

Vibrant life signs in 2013 were, in fact, everywhere. Among these were the perhaps unprecedented occurrence in a single year of the birth of two new jazz festivals, and the sudden springing to life of a classy shoreline jazz club.

Besides healthy turnouts at conventional venues like Connecticut’s many thriving outdoor festivals in 2013, jazz also played regularly to often packed houses in such off-beat sites as a fashionable West End dress shop in Hartford, a major urban public library, the sanctuary of a venerable Hartford church, and a historic, 19th-century home in Guilford, among other unusual-seeming venues. You could even sample slices of piping hot modern jazz served at Bloomfield Village Pizza or Pizzeria Lauretano in Bethel, or savor tasty, le jazz hot confections whipped up at La Petite France Bakery Café in West Hartford Center.

So to commemorate 2013, and to usher in the new year, first let’s deck the halls of the Jazz Corridor with boughs of holly to celebrate the birth of the two new festivals and, yes, the nativity of the new jazz club in Old Lyme, a shoreline savior of syncopation that has, miraculously, already launched an armada of talent.

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR

Birth of the Cool in 2013

The Yellowjackets performed at this year's Windsor Jazz Jam.
Credit The Yellowjackets

Quite remarkably, one of the newly-born jazz festivals in 2013 was created single-handedly by Tamara Braz, a jazz-loving, industrious Simsbury business woman who last summer presented an all-star, one-day festival called the Windsor Jazz Jam. Braz, who runs a video production company, had never before produced a concert -- a financially risky, demanding, highly-skilled task involving everything from dealing with contract negotiations to finding a suitable site. Yet somehow, the fledgling impresario fielded an all-star lineup that featured saxophonists Marion Meadows and Jimmy Greene, The Yellowjackets, and introduced many Connecticut fans to the genuinely great but woefully under-hyped modern jazz singer, Jackie Ryan.

In yet another surprising coup last spring, the Yale Jazz Collective, an ambitious, student-run jazz advocacy group, mounted the weekend-long Yale Jazz Festival in New Haven, stepping off brilliantly with its headliner act, the cerebral, constantly innovative and inventive pianist/composer Vijay Iyer.

Perhaps even more dramatically, Old Lyme’s Side Door Jazz Club in May swung open with triumphant flair as the legendary impresario and irrepressible swing pianist George Wein led his Newport All-Stars before a cheering SRO crowd on opening night.

Pianist George Wein performed with his band at The Side Door Jazz Club in May.
Credit Bruce Byers

Having Wein, one of the most influential tastemakers in jazz history, preside over the champagne and ribbon-cutting at the premiere bash has augured well for The Side Door Jazz Club. With its lineup packed from week-to-week with top-name players such as pianist Fred Hersh, Israeli clarinetist Anat Cohen, and trumpeter Wallace Roney, or promising young talent on the way to the top, the club, with justification, proudly boasts of “being dedicated to offering the very best live jazz experience you will find between New York and Boston.”

It’s an ongoing celebration, a dance of life infinitely remote from the end-of-the-worlders’ Schadenfreude-filled portrait of jazz in the final death-rattle stage of the danse macabre.

Connecticut was also blessed during the year with many ongoing, first-rate jazz festivals, scattered from The New Haven Jazz Festival on the New Haven Green, presented by Jazz Haven, a non-profit, jazz advocacy group, to CEO and Founder Vita Muir’s nationally celebrated Litchfield Jazz Festival, nestled near the state’s bucolic Northwest corner.

As in decades past, Hartford drew tens of thousands of fans last summer to its free fests in the city’s downtown Bushnell Park at The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, and The Hartford Jazz Society’s venerable Monday Night Jazz in Bushnell Park, plus numerous high-quality indoor offerings presented in the city by such longtime local jazz bastions as The Artists Collective.

Credit David Denicolò

Jazz in Unusual Settings

But jazz also flourished in less traditional sites such as fashion designer/concert producer Dan Blow’s increasingly popular jazz and cabaret series at his shop, Japanalia Eiko, a sleek boutique by day and a live performance hot spot by night. Suddenly, SRO turnouts weren’t all that unusual.

As in years past, jazz also had a welcoming refuge at Hartford’s perpetually jazz-friendly Asylum Hill Congregational Church. And in one of the most inspiring jazz stories of the year, The Hartford Public Library’s once perilously anemic attendance figures shot through the roof in 2013 as nearly 5,000 patrons flocked to the 16 free Sunday matinees in its virtually born-again Baby Grand Jazz Series. It was an astounding figure that left even library officials stunned but utterly delighted by the dramatic surge in downtown activity.

And once again on track, and still sizzling after all these years, The Hot Steamed Jazz Festival last summer rolled out its usual power-packed lineup of classic jazz, swing and blues at its unique stomping grounds, the Essex Steam Train site in Essex. Highlights included such super chiefs of the classic keyboard canon as Michigan’s boogie-woogie master Bob Seeley, and Connecticut's swing savant, Jeff Barnhart.

Also traditional jazz once again enjoyed robust success with its weekend bash this fall held in, of all unlikely seeming places, the living room of an upscale historic farmhouse in Guilford. At Jeff and Joel’s House Party, premier Dixieland bands wailed away as festive fans wined and dined in a very much alive celebration of old-time jazz, recalling the fabulous house-rent parties of the 1920s and '30s. About the only thing missing from the party was the ghost of Fats Waller romping his way through "The Joint Is Jumpin.'"

Jazz house parties like this flourish in other parts of the country, offering a pleasant, pragmatic alternative to the increasing expense of presenting a giant tented festival. Some trad jazz authorities hint that this in-house celebration in private homes may be the wave of the future, a way to insure that there will always be another wave and always be a future.

Credit Stephen Haynes

The Avant Garde Lives!

It was a good year for all brands of jazz, including the avant garde, which perhaps gets even less attention from the media than the more accessible, mainstream forms of jazz, which, of course, will never again be the popular music of the day at it was in the 1930s and '40s. Nonetheless, jazz will survive, and such masters as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins will, in the manner of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johannes Brahms, still be affecting listeners even 100 years from today and beyond.

Although it may have a smaller congregation than mainstream jazz, cutting-edge music in Connecticut flexed its anything but puny biceps from New Haven’s Firehouse 12, with its on-fire schedule, to Hartford’s Real Art Ways, which provided a showcase for an experimental series called Improvisation. Curated by trumpeter Stephen Haynes and guitarist Joe Morris, the adventurous series gave listeners the opportunity to get up close to the spontaneous combustion of improvisation sparked by Haynes, Morris, and their freewheeling guests.

The music of the avant garde, in a positive piece of cultural history for Hartford, inspired the groundbreaking partnership among three of the capital city’s premier arts groups, RAW, the HJS, and The Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, which united to present a concert by a massive, convention-smashing orchestra directed by the revolutionary composer/percussionist Adam Rudolph.

Because of the cultural groups’ tripartite alliance, Rudolph and his improvisational Go Organic Orchestra were able to unleash their significant sound and fury on the historic stage in the Aetna Theater at the Wadsworth — a cutting-edge experiment on the very stage where such modern iconoclasts as Gertrude Stein and Salvador Dali once lectured Hartford audiences, brilliantly and wonderfully, if not also incomprehensibly.

Just as old-fashioned house-rent parties may be the wave of the future for trad jazz concerts, so may such alliances as the one formed by RAW, the HJS, and the Wadsworth also be a way to help keep jazz alive.

In yet another example of how such pacts may well keep jazz off the resuscitator that the doomsayers are always citing, there’s the fruitful working partnership between the HJS and Charter Oak Cultural Center, which keeps the popular Monday Night Jazz series at Hartford’s Black-eyed Sally’s swinging full-speed ahead. Thanks to this double entente, you’re able to catch many of Hartford’s jazz luminaries jamming there Monday nights, including anyone from trombonist Steve Davis and bassist Nat Reeves to alto saxophonist Kris Allen and trumpeter Josh Evans. After the first set, the session opens to young players in the audience who can then hone their skills by jamming with the featured experienced musicians. It’s a rite of passage that hands down the knowledge and experience of one generation of musicians to the next in an unbroken continuum, in the classic manner of the ancient craft guild system that lasted for centuries.

As demonstrated every day by legions of musicians, dedicated teachers, festival presenters, club owners, evangelical advocates of all kinds and, above all, by loyal fans throughout our region, jazz is far from dead. No more so than, say, classical music is dead, opera is moribund, or chamber music and the visual arts are on their last legs gasping for a mercy killing.

Around here, as shown by a physical exam of the body of accomplishments for the year 2013, jazz is not dead. It’s not even dozing!