Notes from the underground
It’s a Sunday night and my friends and I are crowded around a table at Jazz Central. The band is on fire. They finished an up-tempo version of the Charlie Parker tune “Billie’s Bounce,” then launched into a burner version of “Red Clay,” a Freddie Hubbard fusion piece. Two weeks later, my friend and I happen upon Schwartz Point, a tiny speakeasy of a club smack in the middle of the ungentrified part of the Over the Rhine neighborhood near Cincinnati. Inside, it’s also the real deal, with an eight-piece band blowing avant-garde, straight ahead and blues-inspired riffs.
The striking part about these evenings is from the outside, jazz had appeared to be more or less dead in southwestern Ohio. Yes, there were a few big band acts publicized throughout the year, but other than that, it felt like a jazz desert in Dayton. But sitting in both clubs, listening to intense, vibrant music, one realizes the art form’s obituary is grossly premature. Jazz isn’t dead – it’s just gone underground.
Twenty or 30 years ago, jazz held a big presence in the region. Gilly’s, presently located at 132 S. Jefferson St. on the edge of the Oregon District, was exclusively a jazz club and booked big name, traveling acts – jazz greats like Chet Baker, Sonny Rollins and even avant-garde favorites like Roland Rahsaan Kirk all played at Gilly’s. Just down the street, Pacchia (where Salar is now located) featured jazz combos every night in their bar. Jazz Central, located just outside of downtown at 2931 E. Third St., was bringing in funky acts like Jack McDuff and Groove Holmes on a regular basis.
So, what happened? Ask and you get a variety answers.
Jerry Gillotti, owner of Gilly’s, noted live jazz isn’t as commercially viable as it used to be. He cited problems with jazz artists moving out of clubs and into different venues, like colleges and those sponsored by arts groups, offering musicians more money than clubs could, but booked fewer artists over the course of a year. Gillotti also cited problems with the types of bands record labels were signing.
“The record companies decided to bypass all the journeymen. In other words, when the people like Art Blakey and Miles Davis were getting older, instead of taking the sidemen who had paid their dues, they jumped to the youth,” Gillotti said. “A few of them have developed, Wynton and Branford Marsalis, Roy Hargrove, but they bypassed some really good players.” He noted a lot of these younger players really weren’t ready for the market and many faded off the scene.
Ron Gable, founder of Jazz Advocate, a regional nonprofit dedicated to informing the public about jazz performances, noted things really haven’t been the same since the economic crash at the turn of this decade. According to Gable, increasing burdens on the middle class have meant less to spend on nights out. The dip in coverage by the local media also contributed to jazz’s decline. Gable explained his nonprofit “started out because the local media was dropping jazz. It hasn’t improved. For a long time, we [Jazz Advocate] were the only source of a jazz calendar, telling people where it was.”
Charles Stone, owner of Jazz Central, lamented similar problems, but also added that getting into jazz requires work on the part of the listener. It’s not the most accessible music compared to today’s pop music and audiences have to be educated as to “what’s real” about jazz – about its unique improvisational qualities keeping it alive.
So, is jazz dead? The resounding answer is “no.” Gillotti, Gable and Stone all noted that while the music may be less popular with commercial audiences, this is a music with a long history and has consistently found a way to survive. George Balog, jazz history teacher at Stivers School for the Arts, agreed jazz is not a dead art form. “I think it’s facing challenges it has faced before, but every style of jazz ever invented since the late 1800s is still out there, it’s still being performed.” He sees the style evolving, citing national acts like Robert Glaspar, “a young guy, dedicated, serious, but [who] wants to fuse jazz with what’s going on now. I think that’s going to keep the art form alive, and keep improvisational art alive, which is the heart of jazz, but brings it to modern sensibilities. Once you get an audience large enough, they’ll start following the string,” tracing jazz back to its roots and discovering the larger, robust history.
The tenacity of club owners and jazz fans keeps the music off of life support. Gilly’s has broadened into other music forms, but still packs the house with smooth jazz acts on a regular basis. Jazz Advocate is still a reliable source for information about all sorts of local jazz acts. And Stone’s Jazz Central works hard to keep bebop vibrant. Why? Because, in a refrain most jazz enthusiasts will recognize, Stone said, “There’s nothing like it. When you are sitting in there, when these guys are hitting it like it should be hit. I feed on it.”
Want to explore the jazz underground yourself? Sign up for the Jazz Advocate newsletter (jazzadvocate.com), and then check out the websites for Jazz Central (jazzcentraldayton.com) and Gilly’s (gillysjazz.com).
Reach DCP freelance writer Kevin J. Gray at KevinGray@DaytonCityPaper.com.