Finding great jazz in Music City is not unlike locating an excellent wine or a vintage musical instrument. That is, it’s here . . . if you know where to look. Because country music’s legacy looms so large in these parts, jazz can seem relegated to the shadowlands. Internationally known pianist and longtime local legend Beegie Adair succinctly sums up the situation: “If you ask a cab driver at the airport, ‘Where can I go hear jazz here?’ he’s likely to say, ‘Oh, there isn’t any jazz here.’” This isn’t sour grapes; it’s a savvy assessment of how Nashville’s jazz scene has generally been perceived, despite the fact that recent years have seen it take giant steps.
Adair, whose vast résumé includes working on ABC’s The Johnny Cash Show, remembers that calls for country recording sessions in the 1960s would come with the admonition “don’t let them know you play jazz.” Thankfully, such genre bias has since lessened significantly, though its previous dominance may have set the course for the historically low visibility afforded to local jazz. Consider, too, that Nashville’s many pro musicians are outrageously versatile players who may find their personal druthers dwarfed by the commercial industry that keeps them well-fed. Guitarist Andy Reiss, whose weekly shows with The Time Jumpers are a master class in the compatibility between jazz and country, provides some perspective on the decades-old dichotomy: “We’ve always had [stylistic] overlap, largely because many musicians see jazz as the ultimate expression of music.” Lately, that expression is finding further release, as multiple generations of inspired Nashville jazzmen and women are finding their collective groove. While word of Music City’s increasingly thriving jazz scene has yet to reach the general populace (or airport taxi drivers, at least), there’s reason for optimism among its supporters.
Scour the local listings and you’ll find a horn-u-copia of jazz scattered among universities, clubs, restaurants including Sambuca and Ellendale’s, and at Nine48Jazz’s hip concerts. The throbbing heart of the scene, though, is Germantown’s Nashville Jazz Workshop. The Workshop’s intimate, atmospherically-lit listening room, the Jazz Cave, presents top-shelf local fare three times a month, with classes otherwise dominating its schedule. Started in 1998 by pianist Lori Mechem and her husband, bassist Roger Spencer, the education-based facility has grown into a community center for jazz. Well-respected veteran saxman Denis Solee affirms that the Workshop “really has crystallized a lot of aspects of the jazz community and brought the musicians together.”
Or ask Monica Ramey, an experienced singer who first began studying music at age 3. “I didn’t have proper jazz training,” says Ramey, “until I discovered the Workshop.” What gives Ramey’s witness its weight becomes fully evident when you experience her vocal skills on display. You can do so at jazz-friendly F. Scott’s—incredibly, for no cover charge—or you could fly to legendary New York music haven Birdland, or venues in other major cities where she periodically appears alongside fellow recording artist Beegie Adair. ”I cherish the feeling,” Ramey says, “that we just proudly delivered a small dose of the Nashville jazz scene to a new fan base.”
Adair’s trio, meanwhile, has broken through to national jazz radio with its locally recorded, Billboard Top 10-charting The Real Thing after years of being unjustly dismissed by jazz DJs. Nashville-based gift-market label Green Hill has sold well over a million copies of recordings by Adair and her trio, plus scores more by combinations of area talent including Mechem, Spencer, Solee and others. In jazz’s niche market, where an established act might move 20,000 copies of a new release, that’s no small feat.
More recently, saxophonist and Nashville native Rahsaan Barber’s Jazz Music City label has released albums (trumpeter Imer Santiago’s Hidden Journey and Barber’s own Everyday Magic) that were singled out in Downbeat magazine.
“I believe we are changing what people know both locally and nationally, if not internationally, about the talented jazz players who call Nashville home,” says Barber, whose trombonist brother, Roland, is among the musicians distinguishing themselves on the national front. Of the growing scene’s dizzying breadth, Barber rightly notes that “jazz can be perplexing as a style, mostly because from one performer to the next, there can be so much artistic range.” In Nashville’s one-of-a-kind musical environment, the picture can get even more panoramic.
Vocalist Jaimee Paul initially had a gospel career in mind but eventually found steady work as a soulful stylist on demos and jingles. A chance opportunity to cover a jazz engagement for a church choir-mate led to her musical conversion, which resulted in Paul performing sophisticated, jazz-informed standards around town.
The Green Hill label discovered Paul and paired her with Beegie Adair, correctly sensing that Adair’s faithful market would embrace the singer. “Beegie and I really clicked,” says Paul, whose duo album with the venerable pianist, At Last, hit the top of the iTunes jazz chart. Her more recent albums continue to break ground in the digital sales realm, opening up a promising alternate demographic for Green Hill. Adair believes that Paul “bridges the gaps because she’s done so many things.” The NJW’s Mechem and Spencer, who’ve also backed Paul on recordings, say that the multi-stylistic singer (who appears periodically at The Gulch’s Sambuca) can wield a convincingly bluesy edge as well.
Blues, a close cousin to jazz, is in truth a base element in much popular music. Three-time Grammy-winner Keb’ Mo’ knows all about it. The acclaimed entertainer has become Music City’s premiere blues representative since moving to the area a couple of years ago. Mo’ makes no bones about being a “fish out of water” here, but the fact is he can swim just about anywhere. Besides playing a monthly series with surprise multigenre guests at the Studio Gallery at Fontanel, he has worked with some of Nashville’s finest in his Franklin studio, he’s guested at the Jazz Cave (see sidebar) and appeared on the Opry stage as the guest of good friend Vince Gill. Occasionally, he’ll join the guitarist at 3rd & Lindsley and sit in with The Time Jumpers, though Vince will typically loan Keb’ his axe and just enjoy watching from the wings. (See our related story, Keb’ Mo’: No Nashville Blues.)
Gill, a stalwart supporter of great talent regardless of genre, has also been championing now-Nashvillian Duffy Jackson, a pedigreed swing/big-band drummer who spent 45 years laying down the beat (sometimes with his dad, legendary swing-era bassist Chubby Jackson) behind artists ranging from Count Basie to Sinatra. Jackson, who began playing at age 4 and went pro at 15, is both a national treasure and a Nashville anomaly whose skill at his craft is without peer. “There isn’t anybody who can drive a big band like he does,” says Denis Solee, who plays in Jackson’s steaming big band. “The son of a gun just swings like nobody else. There are a lot of people,” Solee says, “who recognize the uniqueness of his talent and what he brings to Nashville.” As an example of this admiration, Solee notes that a benefit for Jackson’s recent hip replacement brought “an amazing turnout. People came from all over.”
Jackson’s presence here since 2008 has added yet another level of legitimacy to an already superb jazz lineup. Perhaps the bigger story, though, is the endlessly upbeat energy the drummer has brought to town, musically and otherwise. He’s deeply grateful for the vital medical care he’s received here (including pacemaker surgery), and he has readily embraced the Volunteer Spirit from which he’s benefited. “Now that I’m feeling better,” he says, “I want to give [Nashville] whatever energies I have.”
His giant-sized passion for the city and its palette of gifted players is emblematic of the affection and respect bubbling through so much of the music community and its jazz tribe in particular. “People are coming together and sharing what they know,” Jackson enthuses. “This is a tremendous city of educators and students, people who want to share knowledge and wisdom of the musical language . . . I call it ‘the universal groove.’”
The fact that a player of Jackson’s history and stature has both endorsed and joined the city’s coterie of jazzers speaks volumes, but the upshot of his too-cool-for-school “universal groove” is simply this: Nashville has a whole lot of grooviness to offer, not the least of which is a wealth of world-class jazz here for the taking . . . now that you know where to look.
(With apologies to deserving musicians not mentioned due to limited space)
This story is available thanks to the sponsorship of Fontanel