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Jazz & Blues
September, 2013, Page 108
Photo by Greg Allen
ALL THAT JAZZ
After swinging through the ’60s, Phoenix’s hard bop life goes on.
If blues music can be said to beat from the heart, jazz emanates from the head. Whereas blues is full of emotive vocals and primarily driven by a 12-bar chord progression with few erratic rhythm changes, jazz veers into myriad musical territories streaked with improvisation.
“Jazz... can be so masterful, it’s intimidating to some,” KJZZ deejay Blaise Lantana says. “There’s so much to learn and so much to do.” But despite the difficulty, she notes, “There is really a lot of [jazz] talent here in the Valley.”
Between upcoming young players and experienced ones, educational settings such as the jazz programs at ASU and community colleges, and live venues like nonprofit The Nash (see page 122), there’s a musical confluence here that’s as rich as the genre itself. More than 50 venues in metro Phoenix host jazz shows, according to Patricia Myers. And she should know. Myers is one of eight founders of nonprofit support organization Jazz In Arizona (est. 1977) and compiles live jazz listings for jazzinaz.org. She’s a virtual encyclopedia of the genre in general, but particularly in Phoenix. “This current panoply of jazz was slow to develop, from roots planted as far back as the 1930s,” she writes from Paris, where she’s spent her summers reviewing jazz shows since 1997.
Myers first landed in the Valley via Ohio in 1962, the same year prominent black businessmen Lincoln Ragsdale and Bill Dickey opened the legendary Century Sky Room at 11th and Washington streets. “It was a second-floor club in a wooden building where touring musicians would stop by after their gigs to sit in, including members of the Duke Ellington and Count Basie orchestras,” Myers recalls. The club closed in 1984, and the building was reportedly torn down due to safety issues.
But there were always plenty of other places for jazz in Phoenix. The Elks Lodge No. 477, established in 1922 and also a popular place for early blues shows (see page 110), frequently featured jazz singer, saxophonist and South Phoenix resident (and future posthumous Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) Louis Jordan, who dipped his toes in several styles over his career. Another regular player at the Elks in the ’50s was Philadelphia transplant Charles Lewis, a jazz educator and pianist who still performs around the Valley and privately teaches harmony and jazz improvisation.
During the still-segregated 1950s, more jazz joints – including The Jazz Mill, the Rose Room, the Hut, and La Ronde – opened throughout the Valley, though primarily in southern and central Phoenix. In the ’60s, stars like Nat King Cole and Dizzy Gillespie stopped at swank venues like the Playboy Club, and local jazz junkies got their fixes on weekends at places like the Westward Ho and Sonny Malkoff’s Steak House.
In the mid-1970s, the Boojum Tree Lounge at Phoenix Doubletree Inn on Second Avenue and Osborn (now a Holiday Inn) became the city’s hotspot for nightly jazz. In addition to national acts like Stan Getz and Art Pepper, Phoenix’s finest frequented the stage. Pianist and current Jazz In Arizona executive director Joel Goldenthal moved to Phoenix from New York City in 1972 and picked up a semi-regular gig at Boojum Tree, alternating most nights with another renowned pianist, Armand Boatman. “And if I wasn’t there, I was at a place called Page Four or Valley Ho or Playboy Club,” Goldenthal says. “There was this circuit of really great jazz rooms, plus there was a whole underground. There was Marvin’s Gardens at 16th Street and Thomas that had jazz until 3 in the morning. There was a lot more going on back then.”
In 1977, the Scottsdale Center for the Performing Arts launched its first season of jazz, which included Sonny Rollins and, later, Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Dave Brubeck. That same year saw the founding of both Jazz In Arizona and the Arizona Classic Jazz Society (azclassicjazz.org), and in 1978, jazz impresario and producer Don Miller threw the first Paradise Valley Jazz Party. The desert blossomed with brilliant jazz cats over the next three decades, including Lewis Nash, singer and charismatic bandleader Dennis Rowland, late pianist and former Playboy Club music director Keith Greko, guitarist Stan Sorenson, vocalist Alice Tatum, and drummer Dave Cook. In 2005, 10-time Grammy Award-winning jazz guitarist George Benson took up primary residence in Phoenix, further nurturing the city’s still-growing jazz pedigree, borne on the swinging club circuits of the ’60s and ’70s and the educational programs of today.
Jazz education and awareness is alive and well here. The Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra has partnered with Mesa Arts Center for educational jazz programming and performances with young players, and local colleges are working with The Nash. “The community colleges want to do their seasonal performances here. ASU is doing their performances here. Students are doing their senior recitals here,” Goldenthal says. “We have some of the finest educators in the Valley... actually coming down here and teaching for us.”
For Valley jazz fans, being an educational epicenter is just one of many pluses. Asked to compare the current jazz scene in Phoenix to that of other cities, international jazz critic Patricia Myers says: “More venues compared to Chicago; less distance between venues compared to the widespread Los Angeles club scene; lower admission costs for touring big-name stars compared to New York City; primo location on the southern tour route by noted musicians.”
Myers tacks on accessible venues, the variety of jazz styles, the high-level ability of local musicians, and diverse audiences from teens to seniors as further marks of Phoenix’s unique jazz scene. “But mostly it is the local jazz scene’s sustained and ever-evolving existence despite the recession and other universal factors,” she says. “Like the stock market, live local jazz is cyclical; it ebbs and flows. I endorse the mantra ‘Support live jazz – go out and listen.’”
5 Essential Arizona Jazz Albums
As Music Director of KJZZ 91.5 FM, Blaise Lantana has heard the cream of Phoenix’s jazz scene. Here are her recommendations of five great homegrown albums for your listening pleasure.
Stan Sorenson, New View (stansorenson.com):
“A guitarist, Stan plays all over the Valley and is from here. He is a graduate of ASU in guitar performance and teaches in Scottsdale.”
Tony Vacca, Three Point Landing (Half Note Records; saxplayer.com):
“Tony Vacca is a brilliant saxophonist and teacher. He lives in Scottsdale now and has been a resident performer and teacher in Chicago.”
Joe Corral, Groovin’ Higher (joecorral.com):
“Joe is an amazing flutist who played with the Phoenix Symphony for many years and is now playing jazz. He grew up here and started out playing in mariachi bands with his family.”
Cinco de Moio, Cinco de Moio (dommoio.com):
“This is the band with drummer Dom Moio, and his brother Bill Moio and other Arizona musicians (see right). They focus mainly on Latin music.”
Mike Kocour, Speaking in Tongues (michaelkocour.com):
“Mike is the director of jazz studies at ASU and an inspired pianist and organist.”
Phoenix Jazz Fams
Margo Reed closes her eyes and snaps her fingers to a swinging snare beat, swaying her head slightly as she sings on a black bar stool. Her voice carries a quivering timbre similar to Eartha Kitt’s, sometimes sweeping into the deep notes of her own soulful tenor as she croons “Fly Me to the Moon.” Backed by mellow yellow stage lighting and a tight trio of veteran jazz players on piano, sax, and drums, the 71-year-old local legend looks and sounds great.
Every Monday night for the past 15 years, Reed has performed here at Kazimierz World Wine Bar in Scottsdale, backed by the city’s most skillful players – tonight, they’re Joel Robin Goldenthal on keys, saxophonist Jerry Donato, and drummer Cleve Huff. It’s a treat to see Reed; recent health concerns limit her gigs to these weekly shows. Between smooth renditions of standards like “Sentimental Journey” and “Call Me Irresponsible,” she repeatedly says into the microphone, “If you have any requests, tell the guys. They do that part; I just sing. Okie dokie? Fine.”
Margo Reed was the first of her musical clan to move to the Valley from Chicago, followed by her sister Francine Reed (backup vocalist for Willie Nelson and Lyle Lovett) and their brothers, bass player Michael and late genre-bending drummer Bucko.
The Reeds represent one of a few famous Phoenix jazz families, including the Moios and the DeFrancescos. Drummer Dom Moio is faculty associate of jazz percussion at ASU and author of the book Be Bop Phrasing for Drums. He’s performed with the likes of Tony Orlando and Herb Ellis. Dom’s brother, Bill Moio, is an accomplished jazz guitarist who’s performed with soul band Tower of Power and the Phoenix Jazz Quartet, along with his brother, bassist Warren Jones, and pianist Armand Boatman.
Former Miles Davis bandmate Joey DeFrancesco, named top jazz organist multiple times by Down Beat magazine, once described his family as “like the hip Partridge family.” The other hipsters: his father, top organist John DeFrancesco; brother Johnny, a blues guitarist; and sister saxophonist Cheryle. Originally from Philadelphia, Joey DeFrancesco relocated to Phoenix in the ’90s; his parents followed in 2005.
Music bridges generation gaps at The Nash.
The venue facade is eye-catching: electric purple stucco, with a violet neon sign that says “The Nash” in fancy cursive. It looks louder than it sounds inside on a recent Sunday night, when, behind the pleated black curtains that cover the windows, a three-piece band washes soft jazz sounds over a rapt audience – some sitting at circular tables, others holding instruments in their laps on leather benches along the back row. They’re all here for the most significant “open mic” night in the city, where young jazz musicians share the stage with world-famous players, and a teenager with a trumpet can request an obscure jazz track from the ’30s and have the house band play along – sans a single sheet of music, such is the skill of these musicians. They shelve vast songbooks in their heads, and they improvise with aplomb.
Opened in April 2011 and named after Phoenix-born jazz drummer Lewis Nash, who has played on more than 400 records by various artists to date, The Nash serves as both an educational epicenter and as a community club, where people bring their own beer or wine (for a small corking fee) and check out the rotating jazz-themed artwork on the walls. Located on the northeast corner of First Avenue and Roosevelt Street, it’s a prime location for First Fridays art walk traffic jams, too. Joel Goldenthal, executive director of nonprofit organization Jazz In Arizona, which operates the venue, says launching The Nash triggered an explosion of jazz shows, along with an expansion of the educational services and scholarships Jazz In Arizona has provided to young local musicians since the organization’s founding in 1977.
Superstition Jazz Orchestra at The Nash
“This is the first time in our history that we’ve had our own venue, and that has made a huge change in what we’re able to do,” Goldenthal says. “We went from an organization that did perhaps 25 events a year to close to over 300, maybe 400 this year. It’s just an incredible amount of growth.”
When the club opened, world famous trumpeter Wynton Marsalis – the Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City – came out for the kick-off show. Some of the best-known names in local jazz show up regularly – including pianist Goldenthal, who’s been playing around Phoenix since 1975; Ted Sistrunk, bass instructor at Paradise Valley Community College; pianist Michael Kocour, director of jazz studies at Arizona State University; and world music/jazz percussionist Tony Vacca, who’s recorded and performed with a wide variety of musicians, including Sting. These seasoned players help younger performers perpetuate jazz in the state. “The only way to really learn this craft is to play the music, to play with other musicians,” Goldenthal says. “You can only go so far in a cubicle with a teacher or in a class, or by yourself. Jazz, perhaps more than any other music, is so dependent on communication among the players. It’s all ears... listening to what the other players are doing and being inspired by that and playing off it.”
Players for this weekly jazz jam change every Sunday but always include someone local and notable in the world of jazz. People shuffle in with saxophones, songbooks, and guitars in colorful cases, after signing up at the door with their names and instruments. Many of them show up every week, especially the younger players, like trumpeter Noah Simpson and drummer Jonathan Starks, both quiet teenagers who play their instruments in serious synchronicity with furrowed-brow intensity. Simpson’s talents were showcased this past July in The Nash’s “Catch a Rising Star” concert series, which features headliners aged 12 to 26. Starks studies under renowned Arizona jazz drummer Dom Moio.
“The Nash is a really cool place, and Phoenix is fortunate to have it. It is the only place in town that offers consistent live jazz and events,” Starks says. “It’s really a great place to meet new people and express a love for music with each other.”
Sunday night jazz jams, which Starks describes as “welcoming to players of all abilities,” provide the perfect learning environment. “That’s what’s magic about the jam session. [It’s] an opportunity for people of different skill levels to play together, and it’s the opportunity for a young musician to get into a situation where they have to rise and be influenced by an experienced player,” Goldenthal says. “What makes jazz different from other art forms is the fact that it’s based on improvisation. I’ve heard it said that when you hear a jazz musician, you’re witnessing an explorer.”
Weekly Events at The Nash
Wednesdays: Superstition Jazz Orchestra (the house big band through the summer)
Fridays: Contemporary Jazz Night (experimental, non-traditional jazz)
Saturdays: Mainstream Jazz (rooted in standards)
Sundays: Jazz Jam Session
110 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix
Upcoming Jazz Players
While most 12-year-old kids were playing kickball and hoping to pass 6th grade, Alex Han (alexhan.com) was receiving a rare and prestigious VSA International Young Soloists Award, and being asked by Grammy Award-winning saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera to sit in with him for two Jazz at Lincoln Center performances. In 2001, a young Han played onstage in Uruguay with late hard bop tenor saxophonist and Thelonious Monk bandmate Johnny Griffin, who, after hearing Han’s soulful solo, said “I wish Dizzy [Gillespie] was still around to hear you.” The Phoenix-bred prodigy plays deep in the reeds, and his talent’s taken him all over the world, playing with the likes of Herbie Hancock, George Duke and Keb’ Mo’. He was selected to be an alto sax chair on the Monterey Jazz Festival Next Generation Orchestra when he was 17, and received a Presidential Scholarship to the indelible Berklee College of Music when he was 18. Now 25, Han has toured and recorded with Grammy Award-winning jazz bassist and composer Marcus Miller for the past four years.
2012 was a big year for Lucas Pino. The saxophonist, clarinetist, composer and bandleader – who, inspired by John Coltrane, started on sax at age 10 – played on five jazz albums that year as a featured sideman, garnering media accolades like “a high wire act of musical texture and technique” (jazzpolice.com). The Phoenix native played his formative years as a member of Young Sounds of Arizona (youngsounds.org), a nonprofit dedicated to furthering the growth of young musicians. After completing his undergraduate studies at the Brubeck Institute, Pino earned a master’s degree from the Juilliard School of Music. In 2007, he relocated to New York, where he leads his own jazz ensemble, the No Net Nonet, and serves on the faculty at Larchmont Music Academy. He also frequently returns to Arizona to present workshops at ASU.
A regular at the Sunday jazz jams at The Nash (see page 122), saxophonist and ASU mechanical engineering major Sean Kelso leads his own quartets, in addition to playing with the Disgruntled Sidemen combo at Scottsdale Community College and the ASU Jazz Repertory Band, under the direction of Mike Kocour. The 20-year-old phenom also performs at Sacred Grounds Jazz Coffeehouse and at jazz-friendly bars like The Lost Leaf. He says he hopes to focus exclusively on music after college: “If I become the world’s first quintuple platinum jazz saxophonist, engineering will probably get put on the back burner. One can dream, right?”
The flagship National Public Radio member station in Phoenix, KJZZ 91.5 FM offers NPR programming along with jazz and blues music. Jazz programming starts at 8 p.m. weekdays (but plays 24/7 on jazz.kjzz.org), while blues airs on Bob Corritore’s “Those Lowdown Blues” every Sunday from 6 to 11 p.m. “This is a discovery place,” DJ Blaise Lantana says, “and not only some cat who’s young and new, but some cat you’ve never heard of who’s dead. But we have a lot here going on with local people. So you can hear local people, you can hear national people – you hear people at different levels.”
Mainstays include Shea Marshall, the Al Ortiz Trio, and Renee Patrick. 6-10 p.m. Su-W; 7-11 p.m. Th-Sa. (15323 N. Scottsdale Rd., Scottsdale, 480-730-4800,
The Mad Hatter Brew Pub
Jam’n Jazz Productions presents these performances, which have previously featured luminaries like Blaise Lantana, Stan Sorenson and Stu Siefer. 7-9 p.m. Tu. (502 S. College Ave., Tempe, 480-967-5353,
Sacred Grounds Jazz Coffeehouse
A variety of groups take the stage. 7:30-9:30 p.m. Th, $5 donation. (Scottsdale Congregational United Church of Christ auditorium, 4425 N. Granite Reef Rd., Scottsdale, 480-946-2900,
Bassist Felix Sainz, keyboardist Paul Sherman and vocalist Diana Lee. 10:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m. Su. (111 E. Camelback Rd., Phoenix, 602-200-8111,
The Lost Leaf
Improv jazz band Jiggle plays every other Monday. (914 N. Fifth St., Phoenix, 602-258-0014,
For more events, visit
Arizona’s big bands blow – in a good way.
Bad Cactus Brass Band
On a Thursday afternoon, the aisles of Bookmans in Phoenix feel a bit like the French Quarter during Mardi Gras. Four guys with brass instruments parade through the science fiction section, playing “When the Saints Go Marching In.” They’re followed by a group of children bopping their heads to the washboard beat and holding a hodgepodge of horns and kazoos, bleating out errant notes ultimately drowned out by the adult quartet – all members of the larger Bad Cactus Brass Band, a Valley ensemble dedicated to playing traditional New Orleans “second line” parade-style jazz. The group, which generally performs at corporate functions and festivals, is making a foray into retail-oriented music education. Grade schoolers provide a whole new audience for the city’s growing big band scene, which already includes several music educators.
Arizona’s big on big band. The style involves an ensemble of 12 to 25 musicians playing some form of jazz on instruments including rhythm, brass, and woodwinds. Popular big band artists include the Glenn Miller Orchestra and clarinetist Artie Shaw. Arizona boasts the Bad Cactus Brass Band, the Extreme Decibel Big Band, the Superstition Jazz Orchestra, Young Sounds of Arizona, and the Ellington Big Band – one of the most notable academia-based big bands. Directed by Doug Tidaback through the Tucson Jazz Institute, Ellington Big Band is composed of high school students from Tucson, Nogales, and Chandler. In 2012, EBB performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, received accolades from vaunted jazz mag Down Beat, and were presented with the “Best Community Band” award from Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center. KJZZ Music Director Blaise Lantana calls them “amazing” – especially considering the ages of the band members. “The kids are high school kids... all high school kids!” she exclaims. “Very exciting.”
Big band experience starts early for many in Arizona. One of the state’s oldest and most respected organizations, Young Sounds of Arizona (youngsounds.org), includes 40 underage jazz musicians playing standards and original compositions, and is considered one of the premier training grounds for jazz players in the country. Famed jazz drummer Lewis Nash, namesake of The Nash jazz venue in Downtown Phoenix, is one well-known alumnus.
Phoenix is also home to “grown up” gigging groups, including Extreme Decibel Big Band, a 17-piece ensemble that’s backed local jazz legend Dennis Rowland at Herberger Theater and performed at Phoenix Symphony Hall. But the most visible local big band may be Bad Cactus Brass Band, which will pretty much play anywhere, according to founder, bandleader and sousaphonist Benjie Messer. “My band members all tell me I book the weirdest gigs they’ve ever played, like they can’t even imagine it would ever be a gig,” he says. “We do a lot of ‘surprise entrances,’ where they just want a marching band to come in... we do a lot of grand openings of stores... we’ve gotten into all these weird niches now, too – we do polka, we do klezmer, when those come in.”
Like many of his bandmates, Messer is a music educator – he teaches electronic music at Phoenix College – who rounds out his income with gigs. It’s just another way to do what he loves for a living and celebrate the spirit of jazz. “It’s fun. It’s a party,” Messer says.
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