Giant Steps
By Ron Wynn

A lot went on in Nashville jazz and blues in 2014 — regardless how far the news traveled

To those who reside outside its borders, Nashville will probably always be viewed as totally about country music, and nothing reinforces that more than living elsewhere and telling people that’s your home. That’s doubly true if you’re talking with someone who’s a fan of jazz or blues, although that’s usually not the case with musicians.

They’ve either heard of or know about the Nashville Jazz Workshop (touted by no less than Down Beat magazine as one of the country’s finest jazz teaching and performance sites) and the annual Blues Challenge that’s held here. They may have appeared on albums released by any of the many imprint companies distributed by Naxos, or been featured on WFSK-FM’s Artist of the Week show. They certainly want to play the Schermerhorn or Ryman. They also laud the work of people like Marion James, whose annual Musicians Reunion event raises funds and honors venerable performers who’ve encountered hard times.

But it’s still a tough sell to many in the jazz and blues audience, even when you mention things that happen regularly or periodically in Nashville that don’t occur in other locales with bigger reputations. That’s not to claim Nashville’s superior to New York City, Philly, Detroit, or New Orleans for jazz, or Chicago and Memphis for blues. It’s just to say things aren’t nearly as barren or berefit as some in other places believe, even as it’s also fair to acknowledge there remain areas which need significant improvement.

But looking back at the past year, I can cite triumphant local appearances by Marcus Roberts, Roberta Flack, Pat Metheny, Vijay Iyer and Wynton Marsalis heading the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra as major events. Two of the nation’s premier young blues musicians, Selwyn Birchwood and Jaerkus Singleton — both of whom, along with Gary Clark Jr., refute the myth no young blacks play the music — made their way to the area, as did perennial New Orleans and Gulf Coast piano wizard Marcia Ball.

A fine new local music discussion/advocacy/performance show debuted, Sessions at Steinway. This program matched a dynamic performer with an equally celebrated musician who served as moderator/interviewer. Modeled along the lines of Piano Jazz or Inside the Actors Studio, it also offered fans the opportunity to see and hear superb performers in more intimate surroundings than usual, and interact with them later in Q&A sessions.

The NJW’s valuable concert series Snap on 2 & 4 at the Jazz Cave (1312 Adams) and Jazz On The Move (at the Frist), the annual Jazzmania celebration, and the jam sessions and other events organized by such groups as the Tennessee Jazz & Blues Society and Music City Blues Society are vital elements in keeping the music and the message alive throughout the region. The Nashville Jazz Orchestra’s weekly and special concerts, along with the Student Jazz Orchestra concerts at the Blair School of Music, are examples of other low-cost regular events that should be bookmarked on any local jazz calendar.

Fisk’s WFSK-88.1 FM — on which, in the interest of disclosure, I host a public-affairs talk show unrelated to music — remains a 24/7 beacon for both smooth and traditional jazz. Despite its reduction in available hours for mainstream jazz, WMOT-89.5 FM has retained some vital specialty programs on nights and weekends. Besides an eclectic blend of other shows, there’s also fine blues programming available on Radio Free Nashville, which just expanded its programming citywide at 103.7 FM. The Belcourt, one of the nation’s finest destination sites for indie films, also included the amazing Clark Terry documentary Keep On Keepin’ On among its lengthy list of must-see productions.

Outstanding LPs continue to be made in town by top jazz and blues artists. From saxophonist Dana Robbins and trumpeter Rod McGaha to trombonist/vocalist Roland Barber, blues stalwarts Markey Blue and Stacy Mitchhart, and sublime vocalist Dara Tucker (to cite only a handful), many superb sessions are being cut in Music City studios.

Naxos has an international reputation for its notable classical releases, but it also issues a host of first-rate jazz titles on numerous imprints. There were also some prime national events, including trombonist Roy Agee playing with Prince, the return of the duo Monica Ramey and Beegie Adair to Birdland in NYC, and vocalists Diane Marino and Tucker also getting in the Big Apple’s spotlight.

The great Taj Mahal receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Americana Association was both well deserved and another step in the organization eradicating an image — unfair in my view — of being esoteric, insular and hostile to certain music styles (or to put it less politely, racist). Actually there’s more diversity in the playlists of the average Americana radio station, particularly as it relates to age and gender, than a lot of pop and urban ones — but that’s another discussion for another day.

There were also setbacks, to be certain. The loss of Billy Adair, a wonderful band director and vibrant personality who encouraged and supported a host of student jazz musicians at the Blair School of Music, was a major blow. Though he wasn’t in the jazz or blues camp, Rev. Morgan Babb was living cultural history and an advocate for the vitality and importance of traditional gospel music. His passing was equally significant. The scarcity of venues and places to play remain constant discussion topics for jazz and blues players. High on the 2015 wish list is the return of F. Scott’s, whose absence has been felt. Also the emergence of a good mid-sized place not as far away as Franklin’s current theater for jazz and blues events would also be a good thing.

It would be silly, and inaccurate, to pretend jazz and blues musicians in Nashville have it easy. There are still not enough venues, and neither genre will ever sell as well as it once did, nor get the kind of general and mainstream notoriety and exposure that pop and country receive. It’s also problematic to suggest treating jazz and blues like symphonic and classical music, because the vast majority of their musicians want to be part of the 21st century conversation (and also aren’t interested in being part of some elite anything). They want and deserve the same respect for their talents. But they intend to remain operating in today’s world — rather than be celebrated for what they did in yesterday’s.