Jazz & Blues

Editorial StaffSeptember 1, 2013
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The tangled, smoky roots of Phoenix’s musical past help the next generation branch out

One night back in the early 1950s – when Phoenix was a way station for musicians traveling the Texas-Southern California corridor, and longtime Audio Recorders engineer Jack Miller was recording everybody who would be anybody – somebody who would never be anybody wandered into the church where Miller had just wrapped a live session. The man asked Miller if he could play the piano. The engineer agreed, letting the tape roll.

For the next 3 minutes and 41 seconds, amidst the occasional clink of glasses being cleared from tables, the mysterious musician smoothly crooned Tampa Red’s blues standard “It Hurts Me Too,” backed by gentle piano playing. When he finished, there was an awe-filled pause, then sparse applause.

The recorded moment is immortalized on the album Flyin’ High (Southwest Musical Arts Foundation Records), a compilation of Phoenix blues, R&B and soul from the ’50s and ’60s put together by longtime local radio personality John Dixon and blues guru Bob Corritore. But the man’s identity is lost in the dusty annals of history. “It’s like, ‘Who is this person?’” Dixon says. “It’s cool in a way. It’d be nice to know who it was, but obviously, that’s another kind of bluesy thing that would certainly qualify as a great little [moment], and it’s on tape. It was just a fluke of somebody turning it on.”

Something about this lone musician speaks to Phoenix’s blues scene: brimming with talent, under the radar, and with a noticeable independent streak. The blues styles in Phoenix are like its population – mostly from elsewhere. While there’s never been a distinct “Phoenix blues” sound in the way places like Chicago, Memphis, and Mississippi have distinct blues styles, there’s always been a little bit of everything here, creating a kaleidoscopic sonic landscape. Sometimes, it’s a singular style, as in the horn-heavy Memphis soul sound of Sugaray Rayford (see page 118), or the up-tempo jump blues of Bill Tarsha & the Rocket 88s. But more often than not, there’s crossover between styles – maybe harmonica indebted to the Delta blues style layered over the heavy fingerpicking guitar of Piedmont (East Coast) blues backed by Chicago “shuffle drums,” or even a touch of country twang guitar astride boogie-woogie piano. Such musical mingling has really emerged here in the past 25 years, as the Phoenix blues scene expanded and then contracted back into a small, tight ball that recalls its knotty beginnings.

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Chico Chism

Before buildings blocked most of the blowing desert dust and the city bloated to almost 518 square miles, Phoenix had a dark den on its south side illuminated by the blues. There was a thriving live music scene here as far back as the 1930s, when several dance clubs hosted iconic jazz players and, starting in 1946, segregated blues nights. A cadre of clubs along Broadway and Buckeye roads formed the core of a ’50s and ’60s music scene whose outskirts stretched to central and north Phoenix, where traveling legends-to-be like Little Richard, James Brown, and Ike & Tina Turner shared stages with local players – a few of whom perform around Phoenix to this day.

“Clubs was everywhere then,” says Texas transplant Big Pete Pearson, who moved to Phoenix and started singing here in 1955. “Most of the bands that was working then was working six to seven nights a week, and there was always a lot of people at all the clubs. Every night.”

One of the most popular clubs, the Riverside Ballroom & Supper Club, located at 1975 S. Central, opened in 1919 and hosted national jazz headliners through the 1940s. Thursday became “blues night” in 1946, drawing huge African-American audiences (like all clubs of the period, Riverside segregated by nights; “Western nights” on Wednesdays and Saturdays were for whites). Between 1950 and 1960, the black population in Phoenix grew from less than 5 percent to almost 7 percent, and with it, the depth and diversity of the city’s music and culture. Dozens of talented blues and R&B artists started making a buzz from now-defunct Valley venues like the Riverside, Madison Square Garden, Abel Hall, the Calderon Ballroom, Century Skyroom, the Grass Hut, the El Morocco Supper Club, the Iron Horse, Prince Hall Club, Club Zanzibar, Trotters Inn, the VFW, and the Purple Turtle at 10th Street and Indian School Road – now the city’s premiere blues club, the Rhythm Room (see page 119).

Soul singer Stan Devereaux arrived in Phoenix from Tucson in 1966 and reminisced about the club scene decades later in a City of Phoenix report on historic African-American properties. “You could see the big shows for pretty cheap. You got to see all the blues shows,” Devereaux said. “They called it the Chitlin’ Circuit, where all the R&B cats came through, and they would always play the Calderon Ballroom and the Riverside Ballroom here in Phoenix… all the acts you saw came through here on their way to California.”

But the most significant place in blues and black culture was the William H. Patterson Elks Lodge No. 477, on Seventh Avenue just north of Buckeye Road. Opened in 1922 and named after a Buffalo soldier from Pennsylvania, the lodge – still operational today – was the place to play throughout the ’50s and ’60s. Nationally-known names including Bobby Bland, James Brown, Ike & Tina Turner, and the O’Jays performed there, as well as already legendary shuffle-boogie singer, saxophonist and South Phoenix resident Louis Jordan, who played with jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald in Chick Webb’s Savoy Ballroom Band in 1936 and made 57 R&B hits by 1951, including “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie” and “Let the Good Times Roll.”

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Photos – from left: George Bowman • Dave Riley

Another frequent performer at the Elks Lodge was Big Pete Pearson, now the longest-performing blues singer in Phoenix (see page 115). In 1960, Pearson cut a record with a Phoenix guitar player named Jimmy Knight, an unsung six-string slinger with a knack for making a guitar warble like a turkey, and who toured with Ike & Tina Turner’s band, the Kings of Rhythm. The recordings of the two Pearson-penned songs, “Heartaches” and “One More Drink,” were never released for reasons unknown even to Pearson, who forgot about them until Arizona music historian John Dixon found them in 1998, in the tape vault of Audio Recorders’ studio. They’re a powerful pair of performances, and they’re included on the Flyin’ High album along with the mysterious lone bluesman. “There is a healthy [blues] scene that has always been. It was exciting to me to discover that,” says legendary local bluesman Bob Corritore. “There was – and is – some great Phoenix recordings, and [John Dixon] really made me aware of that.”

Cutting a record in Phoenix was easy in the ’50s and ’60s, thanks largely to the surfeit of studios that sprang up. These included Viv Records Studio, Magnatronics, the Von Studio, and Canyon Records, which still operates today as one of the premier Native American music labels in the U.S. But the bulk of well-known blues and rock recordings in Phoenix came from the late Floyd Ramsey’s Audio Recorders, on Seventh Street near Weldon Avenue. It was there that Grammy-winning guitarist Duane Eddy committed the best-selling “Rebel Rouser” to tape and country star Sanford Clark sang “The Fool.” The studio, which exists today as Audio Video Resources, was a breeding and proving ground for every major player during the formative years of the city’s blues and R&B scenes. The latter was the more prolific of the two genres when it came to recording. Blues stayed largely in bars.

One of the major players of the period was Arlester “Dyke” Christian, who came to Phoenix in the mid-’60s via Buffalo, New York after a stint singing and playing bass with the Blazers, the backing band for the O’Jays. In 1966, he formed Dyke and The Blazers. Their song “Funky Broadway” was a hit recording for Wilson Pickett in 1967. It refers to Broadway Road in South Phoenix, then the epicenter of the city’s rhythm and blues scene.

But as the liner notes for Flyin’ High point out, aside from “Funky Broadway” and maybe “Linda Lu” by Texas transplant Ray Sharpe, few Phoenix blues and R&B recordings went nationwide. In fact, much early Phoenix audio might be lost to listeners were it not for Arizona music archivist John “Johnny D” Dixon, a former disc jockey at local radio stations including KCAC and KDKB who spent his teens and 20s hanging around Valley record stores like B and B Records and Wigs, on the corner of 16th Street and Broadway. To Dixon, the early blues records of Phoenix – unlike the more available R&B albums – are special because they’re so rare. “There were plenty of places that [local musicians] could work, but as far as actual recordings of these people, they’re just very, very few and far between,” he says. “That’s the thing that remains for me to appreciate 40, 50 years after the fact.”

“There are just so few really blues things,” Dixon continues. “That’s why the Lone Wolf is so unique, because it’s one of the very few traditional blues records.”

Lone Wolf is another mysterious musician, whose sole sonic footprint is a recording by Audio Recorders engineer Jack Miller. Aside from a name and address scribbled on the recording (“Bob Felder, 1411 E. Washington Street”), nobody knows anything about him. Miller remembers him showing up on August 18, 1958 to record three songs, on which he simultaneously sang, and played guitar, drums and harmonica. “It wasn’t like he was covering Muddy Waters or anything,” says Dixon, who included two of Lone Wolf’s songs on Flyin’ High. “He was doing his own thing and writing his songs, which was cool.”

Aside from local bars and clubs, there weren’t many methods of exposing local blues music to audiences. “With the exception of KCAC, which was the first black-owned and operated radio station here for quite a few years (see sidebar, page 119), there just wasn’t that much exposure,” Dixon says. “The other thing that was exposing blues here – not necessarily local blues, of course – were the jukeboxes… Every black nightclub in South Phoenix had a jukebox filled with Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf and Jimmy Reed, all of these great blues cats.”

Much has changed over the decades since the jukebox’s heyday, but a patch of blues hotspots survives – like bruises, some say, but badges of honor, too. Blues has endured here through a slew of veteran players, including a handful of homegrown greats along with migrants from places like Louisiana, Texas and Chicago. This blending of blues styles from around the country enriched the Phoenix scene, and continues to give Valley artists a sense of musical freedom. Veteran players jam alongside the growing next generation in a blues community that’s still solid, albeit much smaller than it was in its younger, club-centric days.

There aren’t nearly as many clubs as there used to be. The main blues joint is Bob Corritore’s Rhythm Room, opened in 1991, and there are a handful of other clubs that host occasional blues shows (see page 119), but those who were here say things changed in the late 1980s, partly because of stricter drinking laws and emerging anti-smoking statutes. “When the ’90s hit, well, you couldn’t smoke in the bars anymore, and it killed a bunch of bars,” Big Pete Pearson says. “A lot of bars just went completely out of business because people would say, ‘Well, if I can’t smoke, I’m not coming.’ So people just quit going out.”

Corritore says a changing demographic contributed to the downsizing, too. “Many of the blues people are older. There are some budding young talents, both musically and audience-wise, and it’s great to see that, but you know, largely many of the blues people are going to be an older crowd,” he says. “They don’t go out the way they used to.”

“All of that being said, the blues is tough and survives and it does very well, and we’ve got a loyal audience,” Corritore continues. “So as someone involved in the club scene, I always keep a place for the blues. I’m very proud to.”

And some artists say being part of the modest-size, maverick blues scene here, where so many blues styles mingle, does have its advantages. “My blues style is very adaptable,” says singer Sugaray Rayford, who recently joined Corritore’s Rhythm Room All-Stars band. “Playing with Bob and those guys is good for my repertoire, it’s good for my brain… it molds you… so that you’re very well-rounded when you go and play blues. Because there’s so many different forms of the blues. You need to be well-versed.”

A diverse but smaller blues scene is a plus to Sugar Thieves vocalist Meridith Moore. “With regards to the blues scene in Phoenix, it’s a great market, because it’s still the Wild West. It’s still very, very open,” she says. “You go to a place like New York City or Nashville or Austin, and there’s… so much competition that it’s really hard to make it there.”

While the bevy of blues clubs is gone, the local scene still has support at Valley bars, and exposure through Corritore’s Sunday night blues show, “Those Lowdown Blues,” which has been on-air at KJZZ since 1984. The Arizona Blues Hall of Fame (azblueshof.org) honors longtime players and trailblazers, while the Phoenix Blues Society (PBS) perpetuates youth and growth. One of 195 worldwide affiliates of the nonprofit, Memphis-based Blues Foundation, PBS was founded in 1989 to support local blues music and culture. Every March, the foundation puts on the Arizona Blues Blast festival and hosts the Arizona Blues Showdown, sending the winner to Memphis to compete in the International Blues Challenge. Previous winners have included some of the Valley’s rising blues stars, like The V-Knights and The Sugar Thieves. The latter band’s branching out to new cities on tour, but Moore says they’ll stay rooted here.

“In the Southwest, especially in Phoenix, you still have a lot of doors to open,” Moore says. “For a lot of the blues musicians in our scene, the sky’s the limit. We can make it what we want to make it. And that’s awesome.”

5 Essential Arizona Blues Albums
Flyin’ High: A Collection of Phoenix Blues, Rhythm, and Spirit (Southwest Musical Arts Foundation): A compilation featuring 27 songs recorded by various artists in Phoenix, spanning the 1950s and 1960s. Included are tracks by the mysterious Lone Wolf, black vocal group The Tads, Maxine Johnson and “Little Junior” Otis, among others.

Hans Olson, The Best of Hans Olson (hansolson.net): Veteran Valley bluesman Olson puts forth his best “harp-in-a-rack” tracks on this two-CD anthology, showcasing his skills as an amplified acoustic guitar player and harmonica maven.

Bob Corritore and Friends, Harmonica Blues (Delta Groove Productions): This star-studded album showcases the mouth harp skills of Corritore; features appearances by the likes of Koko Taylor, Honeyboy Edwards, and Robert Lockwood Jr.; and won a Blues Music Award in 2011 for Best Historical Record.

Big Pete Pearson and The Gamblers, Choose (Modesto Blues Records): Produced by Pearson, this live album captures 10 of the blues shouter’s best original songs, backed by his European touring band, The Gamblers.

Chico Chism, Raw As Hell (Cher-Kee Records): This collection of songs by drummer and singer Chico Chism was recorded at various points and put together in 1995, with the help of Hans Olson. All of the tracks were written by the late Chism, including lowdown romps like “Big Fat Woman 480 lbs.” and “Chico’s Boogie.”

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Big Pete Pearson

Big Pete Pearson
It’s hard to choose just one attention-grabbing anecdote from the cinematic life story of Arizona’s oldest blues veteran. Big Pete Pearson was shot onstage. He used to jam with Elvis Presley, service Lady Bird Johnson’s car, and lecture Michael Jackson about running through his flowerbeds. He’s probably played with every legendary blues player you can name, and then some.

Not that Lewis Paul “Big Pete” Pearson, 76, needs anecdotes to get anyone’s attention. His soulful bellow does the trick just fine, especially when he’s shouting lines like “I’ll drink your bathwater, baby/Just to prove my love to you.” His vocals sometimes sound like they’re bursting out of him with feral anguish, but he can also croon notes as smooth as molasses. Known as “Arizona’s King of the Blues,” Pearson (bigpeteblues.com) is entering his 67th year of performing, and he’s never missed a gig. When he performed at the legendary Charlie’s Playhouse in Austin, Texas – where he rubbed elbows with Elvis, then stationed at nearby Fort Hood – a woman shot him, grazing his formidable gut with a bullet. Soaked in blood, he still finished the show. “I guess the song that I was singing wasn’t what she wanted to hear,” Pearson says with a laugh.

When he was inducted into the Arizona Blues Hall of Fame in 1995, he’d been singing the blues in Phoenix for 40 years, sharing the stage with the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, Big Mama Thornton, Etta James, Muddy Waters, Screamin’ Jay Hawkins, Ray Charles and Big Joe Turner, as well as countless musicians who were residents of – or just rolling through – the Valley. He still plays around Phoenix and regularly tours Europe, where he’s received like a rock star. “It’s a different world. When I go over there, all my shows are usually sold out,” Pearson says. “I had 17 concerts [this past June]. Some of them were festivals, and some of them were concerts, but they were all sold out. My smallest crowd, which was in Germany, was 46,000. People there, if you’re playing today, they’re there. Here, the people take musicians for granted, I think. They say, ‘Oh, I’ll catch them the next time.’ They don’t do that in Europe. You’re there today, they’re there today.”

Pearson was drawn to the blues as a little boy raised by his grandparents in an all-black community near Austin called St. John. He would sneak into the family garage late at night and listen to blues broadcast out of Shreveport, Louisiana on his grandfather’s battery-operated radio. He sometimes fell asleep with his ear pressed against the speaker, running the battery down before dawn. His grandfather was a Baptist preacher, and his grandmother a missionary who directed the church choir, so they allowed him to join a gospel group. One night, two local men approached young Pete and said they’d heard he could play guitar and sing, and asked if he wanted to work that night. “I said ‘yeah,’ because I thought I was going to a church. Nobody told me I was going to a bar,” says Pearson, who was then the ripe old age of 9. “If my grandparents had known I was going to a bar, I wouldn’t have never made it.”

With that first show at the Triple J Bar in Austin, Pearson began his nearly seven-decade career. Throughout his childhood, he snuck away to play blues shows and hid his gig money – three half-dollar coins a night – in cigar boxes under the house. He came out to his grandparents as a blues singer in his late teens, got day jobs as a cook and mechanic, and continued playing at clubs nearly every night. Segregation was standard for the first 20 years of his career. He says black musicians, while allowed to entertain in the clubs, were not permitted to use the restrooms and had to go in the alleys instead. They were not allowed to drink from the bars’ glasses or bottles; if black musicians wanted to drink in the bar, they had to bring their own cups, Pearson recalls.

He followed his brother-in-law from Austin to Phoenix in 1955, when the “Valley of the Sun” was but a divot in the desert, and the end of segregation was still almost a decade away. He found work as a line cook at Sky Harbor Airport and the Valley Ho, and later as a mechanic at an Oldsmobile dealership. At night, he sang at clubs around central and Downtown Phoenix. It was in the early ’60s that Pearson found himself neighbors in south Phoenix with Chrystal King-Jackson, the paternal grandmother of Michael Jackson, and yelling at the future King of Pop to stop trampling his snapdragons.

Given the length of Pearson’s career, his available discography is surprisingly short, but stellar.  His handful of records include I’m Here Baby (Blue Witch Records), featuring notable guests like Ike Turner and W.C. Clark, and his latest album, Choose (Modesto Blues Records), featuring the jaw-dropping band that backs him in Europe – a talented Italian quartet called The Gamblers. Pearson continues to play regular gigs around the Valley, including the Fall Concert Series at Desert Botanical Garden, where he’s one of the most popular performers. He’s also a frequent big draw at Janey’s Coffeehouse & Bodega in Cave Creek, where he packs the patio with people, many of whom will get right up next to him and boogie down, until he virtually disappears in the crowd and seems to become a disembodied voice of omnipotence, commanding people to keep on dancing.

While blues is generally considered an older player’s genre, musicians carrying the torch in the Valley are getting younger.

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The Sugar Thieves

The Sugar Thieves
The fabric flower in Sugar Thieves singer Meridith Moore’s hair is fist-sized and blood-red. To someone standing behind the sea of shaking butts at the Rhythm Room on a frisky-hot Friday night, Moore’s flower looks like a human heart beating under bright stage lights. She tilts her head back and lets a soulful note go, evoking the sadness of Billie Holliday with the throaty strength of blues belter Koko Taylor. Her bandmates – dressed dapper in vests, ties, and smart black hats – create a blur of hands picking blue notes on guitar, plucking on upright bass strings, and pounding on piano keys. The Sugar Thieves’ slogan, “Arizona’s finest meat-shakin’ blues band,” makes metaphorical sense.

Originally formed as a duo in Phoenix in 2005 by Moore and guitarist/vocalist Mikel Lander, The Sugar Thieves (sugarthieves.com) have independently recorded and released five albums, won the Phoenix Blues Society’s annual blues showdown three times, and received the People’s Choice Award at the International Blues Challenge in Memphis this year. They pretty much pack the house wherever they play in the Valley. This past July, they performed at the Cahors Blues Festival in France. Wherever they go, they bring an old-time, traditional, down-home sound – especially impressive considering the oldest band member is in his mid-30s.

“It’s American music, and it’s really a history lesson when we get up and play,” Moore says. “We do a lot of original material, of course, but also bring back songs from the ’30s and ’40s, kind of our way of showing appreciation for blues artists that have paved the way in the past and really founded the genre in America.”

Among the covers popular at their shows are “Chocolate Jesus” by Tom Waits, with Lander singing lead in his own gravelly drawl, and Bessie Smith’s “Give Me a Pig Foot and a Bottle of Beer” – which includes a nod to meat-shakin’ and the added line “Check all your razors and your guns/We’re gonna be arrested when Arpaio comes,” referencing the notorious sheriff of Maricopa County. “A lot of the songs that we cover, we’ll write a verse of our own and throw it in there,” Moore explains. “That’s how the blues started – everyone would kind of take little licks and personalize them. And we still keep that alive.”

The members of The Sugar Thieves may be young for their genre, but they’re seasoned players. In 2008, when Nebraska transplant Moore and Arizona native Lander invited musicians to join them for jams on Wednesdays at Big Fish Pub in Tempe, two veteran Valley players – drummer David Libman and saxophonist/keyboardist Shea Marshall – came every week for a year. “Never asked to get paid or anything. They basically sat in with us until we hired them,” Moore says, adding that she “about fell out of my chair” when she saw the resume of Marshall, who’s only in his mid-20s but has already been performing more than a decade. (Marshall is also a member of the Bad Cactus Brass Band; see story on page 125.) Upright bass player Jeff Naylor studied at Northern Arizona University under the late Joel DiBartolo of the Grammy-winning band for The Tonight Show, and toured with Brazilian funk group Delta Nove.

In other words, these cats have their crap together. That’s apparent at their energetic and intimate shows. “I like to call The Sugar Thieves a live band,” Moore says. “We have great albums out there, but really, the experience is coming and seeing us live, and feeling the energy that we put forth on stage. When all five of us are up there in our element, our hearts beat out to the audience, for sure.”

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Sara Robinson & The Midnight Special

Sara Robinson & The Midnight Special
Somewhere between the gritty guitar riffs of Texas Roadhouse Blues and funky, slide guitar-layered soul lies Sara Robinson & The Midnight Special. “Sara Robinson is a fantastic vocalist,” says Sugar Thieves singer Meridith Moore. “She’s still a teenager, but they rock the stage like they’ve been around for a long time.” Robinson’s voice is big and crisp – a wailing tenor akin to interpretive singers like Linda Ronstadt or fellow blues-rocker Susan Tedeschi. Whatever the comparison, Robinson and her trio of backing players – guitarist Brandon Croft, bassist Brenden McBride, and drummer Evan Knisely – manage to pull off a singular sound and vibe. The quartet’s self-titled debut album contains 10 songs, including burly-sounding blues-rock fusions like “She Ain’t Gonna Love You” and “You Honey.” Formed in 2012, the young band has already shared stages with local rock luminaries the Gin Blossoms and Roger Clyne, and plays regularly at local venues like Crescent Ballroom. Visit sararobinsonandthemidnightspecial.com.

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Photo by Pamela Rayford Sugaray Rayford

Sugaray Rayford
“We’re so blessed,” Bob Corritore says. “The blues gods have smiled upon us.” He’s referring to singer Caron “Sugaray” Rayford (sugarayblues.com) of award-winning blues band the Mannish Boys, who recently moved to Maricopa from Texas and joined Corritore’s Rhythm Room All-Stars. The 6-foot-5 performer’s dynamic stage presence – sounds like Teddy Pendergrass, moves like James Brown – puts some Memphis-style soul in the All-Stars’ Chicago blues. “Playing with Bob and those guys is great for me, because it’s a challenge. It’s something different,” Rayford says. “It’s kind of like, I love cognac, but every once in a while I like to have Coke Zero or lemonade. It’s good to change your palate.”

Weaned on pentecostal gospel and the voices of Aretha Franklin and Mahalia Jackson, Rayford began playing drums and singing in church at age 7 but ultimately fixed on blues. “It’s the only music I’ve ever done that gives me the feeling I got when I did gospel,” he says. “You can just bring people to tears, and you’re touching their hearts and talking to their souls.”

Lyrical inspiration comes from his life. “I feel like an old man,” says Rayford, who is 40-ish – young by blues standards. “I’ve done a lot of living in the years I’ve been alive. I’ve literally gone from dirt-poor and living in abandoned houses and not eating for five to seven days to having an opulent, large home and land and all that stuff. And 10 years in the military – I’ve had a lot to pull from… When I’m singing blues songs, it gets very deep and very real, because a lot of the things, I’ve actually lived. I think those are the best songs, regardless of who you are – songs that you can actually relate to… I think that affects the audience so much deeper than if you’re singing some song that’s a poppy song with a catchy beat.”

The V-Knights
This quartet’s oldest members are 13-year-old twins Gabriel and Christian Velasquez, on bass and lead guitar, respectively. Their brother – drummer and vocalist Alex – is 11, and their friend, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Nicolas, is 7. But these boys aren’t singing about the high cost of video game consoles or playground bullies beating them out of their lunch money. They’re singing original songs about getting gouged at the gas pump and covering Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Rude Mood” and Jimi Hendrix’s “Voodoo Chile.” And they’re doing it with aplomb, awing audiences at such venerable local venues as Alice Cooper’stown and Hard Rock Cafe. Their recordings stream at reverbnation.com/vknightsband, and one of them, “Gas Pump Blues,” plays frequently on the Graveyard Blues show on New York City station WRCN. The song, also a favorite at their live shows, may be even bluesier when one of the V-Knights gets old enough to actually drive.

The Frill Is Gone
With nary a pool table or TV in sight, the Rhythm Room keeps local blues live.

It’s a Saturday night in 2005, and the double-doors to the Rhythm Room patio fly open. Out comes a short, dark figure in a charcoal-gray three-piece suit and a fedora that shadows his eyes. He shuffles to a slow beat toward the suddenly hushed crowd of smokers, cackling “heh-heh-heh” in a deep, gravelly voice, wringing his hands like a villain in an old movie preparing to blow up a passenger train. He sidles onto a bench beside a young woman and is immediately surrounded by admirers asking for handshakes and autographs. They include Jimmie Vaughan, brother of late Texas blues great Stevie Ray, who asks the man if he’ll join him on stage that night. Intrigued, the young woman asks who the stranger is. “I’m the legendary Chico Chism,” he says, without elaboration.

Chico Chism passed away two years later at the age of 79, but his legend lives on as one of the best drummers in blues history, the self-professed inventor of the backbeat, and the last drummer for the late, great Howlin’ Wolf. But more than that, he was a mascot of sorts for the Rhythm Room, Phoenix’s premier blues venue, opened in 1991 by harp player Bob Corritore. It was Corritore who brought Chism to Phoenix from Chicago in 1986, just as he imported many other vaunted blues players from around the country, including Louisiana Red and Mississippi guitarist Dave Riley, who continues to play the Rhythm Room and collaborate on albums with Corritore.

Over the years, the presence of venerable blues artists has been an important part of the venue’s vitality. Corritore recruited many of them, including Chism, to play in his Rhythm Room All-Stars band, which backed some major players on stage, including Snooky Pryor, Bo Diddley, Pinetop Perkins and Nappy Brown. The Rhythm Room All-Stars have also recorded a handful of albums featuring big-name guests. Such pedigrees helped build the Rhythm Room’s reputation as a no-frills live music haven. “It is a great sounding, great feeling, live music room with no TVs, dart boards or pool tables,” Corritore told Blues Blast magazine in April 2011. “We are a concert club venue with no apologies.”

But as veteran players like Chism and Louisiana Red pass on, the club increasingly relies on rock shows and the small crop of younger-than-50 blues musicians to fill the seats and dance floor. It’s working, as evidenced by the shoulder-to-shoulder crowds packing the place on a Saturday night in 2013. “The blues does well, and we have a built-in audience at the Rhythm Room that loves it,” Corritore says. “We book a lot of both national and Phoenix acts, and we find that people really appreciate what we’re offering. Especially on weekends. They come out in droves to support the music.” 1019 E. Indian School Rd., 602-265-5842, rhythmroom.com

More Blues Jams
In addition to the Rhythm Room, these Valley venues host regular blues shows:
The Blooze Bar
On Sundays, Bill Tarsha & the Rocket 88s host an open mic jam. 6-10 p.m. (12014 N. 32nd St., Phoenix, 602-788-4574, thebloozebar.com)

Char’s Has The Blues
Local blues rockers Bam Bam & Badness lead funky jams every Monday. (4631 N. Seventh Ave., Phoenix, 602-230-0205, charshastheblues.com)

Janey’s Coffeehouse & Bodega
Regulars include Big Pete Pearson, the Rocket 88s, and Hans Olson. (6602 E. Cave Creek Rd., Cave Creek, 480-575-6885)

Starters Bar & Grill
RayRay’s Blues Jam with Bluzone takes place Thursdays. 7-11 p.m. (1400 S. McClintock Dr., Tempe, 480-967-2622, startersaz.com)

Radio Gaga: KCAC 1010 AM
When KCAC 1010 AM, the first free-form radio station in Phoenix, got robbed in 1969, deejays asked listeners to loan them records while they rebuilt the station’s stolen library. Contributions were reportedly rewarded with pot. It was a maverick move that kept the music playing in a bygone era of “free love” and rogue radio.

The station began broadcasting in 1961, on a modest 500 watts of power out of what is now the Rancho Grande shopping center at 20 E. Broadway Rd. It was the first black-owned and operated radio station in the Valley, and its seminal stable of deejays included Jim Titus, who became the first African-American deejay in Phoenix on station KRIZ in 1958; former O’Jays group manager Eddie O’Jay; and Hadley Murrell, who produced many early Phoenix soul records.

In addition to giving play to both local and national blues, R&B and soul songs – which weren’t getting as much airtime on mainstream stations as their British Invasion interpretations – the station provided a platform for on-air talent that might have otherwise been overlooked. “KCAC was really the first exposure here of black deejays,” says John Dixon, who hosted a show on KCAC called “R&B with Johnny D” in 1970. “And it was only a daytime station, so they had a limited amount of exposure.”

The late Bill Compton became program director in 1969. The station changed locations a few times before landing at Wallich’s Music City, a record store housed in Tower Plaza near 40th Street and Thomas Road. Compton’s broadcast booth sat in the display window of the store and drew crowds of curious teens, decades before MTV’s Total Request Live had audiences waving through windows. It was great for business – kids would hear an R&B cut from Compton, then go hunting for the record in the store.

Wallich’s would be the last stop for KCAC – in 1971, the frequency was purchased by Dwight Tindle, who moved operations to a building on Country Club Drive and First Avenue in Mesa. He also changed the station call letters from KCAC to KDKB, a still-thriving station now on 93.3 FM. The change brought blues music to a whole new audience. “With the advent of KDKB, suddenly you’ve got a 24-7, 50,000-watt or whatever radio station playing Muddy Waters and Jimmy Reed and all of those things,” Dixon says, emphasizing “the influence of FM radio in delivering these songs to this new group of white ears out there.”

KDKB switched to rock in the 1980s, moving even further from its predecessor’s untamed blues territory. Few new blues artists may remember KCAC, but in the ’60s, it was as transitional and impactful as the blues musicians who rolled through town.


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hoto by Greg Allen George Benson

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.

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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.

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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

The Nash
110 E. Roosevelt St., Phoenix

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Upcoming Jazz Players

Alex Han
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.

Lucas Pino
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.

Sean Kelso
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.”

Eddie V’s
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, eddiev.com)

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, madhatterbrewpub.com)

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, scucc.com)

St. Francis
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, stfrancisaz.com)

The Lost Leaf
Improv jazz band Jiggle plays every other Monday. (914 N. Fifth St., Phoenix, 602-258-0014, thelostleaf.org)

For more events, visit jazz.kjzz.org.

Brassy Class
Arizona’s big bands blow – in a good way.
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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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