The evolving tale of Louisville’s jazz scene

Jazz can be found in Louisville throughout the week. | Courtesy of Louisville Jazz Society

By James Natsis

It is a tale of two jazz scenes.

First, an early-in-the-week, early-hour weekly rendezvous for those in the know. Monday at 7 p.m. seems rather fitting for the middle-aged crowd who have been haunting the Decca basement in NuLu for the past five years. The snug, lower-level stonewalled, windowless venue serves as an early 21st century throwback to the old-school Harlem jazz digs.

In this scene, cocktails and wine are the drinks of choice. What started off five years ago as an idea to have local musician Pete Petersen play some piano on Monday evenings quickly turned into a jazz clinic led by Petersen and his fellow seasoned musician colleagues known as The Buzzard.

Then there’s a late-in-the-week, late-hour rendezvous for those who may be in the know, but more likely just hanging out past 10 on a Friday night. The spacious band stage area in Butchertown’s Louis’s the Ton hosts a variety of musical genres on a regular basis. The bare-walled, saloon-like open structure has an appropriate feel for the mostly youthful clientele that steps into the strange world of jazz.

The Rob Nickerson Quartet performing at Louis’s the Ton | Photo by James Natsis

In this scene, one is more likely to find a draft beer sitting on a given table than any other beverage. Saxophonist and former UofL student Rob Nickerson and his quartet have been holding court there the past two years.

Early on, Nickerson and fellow jazz musicians played every other Friday beginning at 11 p.m. There wasn’t as much money to be made at the time, so they had to start later.

“Cats had to make money playing elsewhere before coming here later on,” explains Nickerson.

The musician is encouraged by the young patrons who have been turning out in substantial numbers to enjoy the sounds of this American music art form. The Indianapolis native has been in Louisville since 2000, when he first started his studies at the University of Louisville.

“There are always opportunities for me to play jazz,” he says.

He is thankful for the restaurants in town that have kept the jazz scene alive. “We hope this will translate into opportunities to play,” says Nickerson. He is committed to remaining in Louisville and being part of an enduring jazz scene.

The players

Jazz is certainly alive and well in Louisville. The scene, players, aficionados and technology may change, but the art form has always found its audience. Although the city boasts a multifaceted array of influences and offerings, the bulwark and plaque tournante of the durable local jazz landscape is UofL’s School of Music, home to the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program.

Established in 1985, the program was renamed in 2000 after Aebersold, a leading proponent of jazz education and the largest publisher of jazz education materials in the world. Aebersold, a New Albany native and retired UofL faculty member, was the recipient of the 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master.

The School of Music has hosted the Aebersold Summer Jazz Workshops since 1977. The program also features extended residencies by leading jazz artists, as well as the annual Jazz Fest in February. The weeklong event celebrates jazz with workshops, clinics and concerts open to the general public. The Aebersold Program is recognized throughout the world for its commitment to quality and innovative programs.

Chris Clark | Courtesy of West Virginia State University

“I feel it’s one of the top 10 in the country, if not in the world,” asserts Chris Clark, a former UofL student and current assistant professor of music at West Virginia State University. He recalls his first encounter with UofL as a music student at Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., when he was considering attending graduate school in Indiana, Tennessee or Kentucky.

Clark met Brazilian musician and former UofL student Renato Vasconcellos, who was a guest artist at Marshall and spoke highly of the program.

Clark was intrigued and eventually moved to Louisville to test the waters. He played with various musicians, including John La Barbera, a Grammy-nominated composer and arranger and UofL professor emeritus of jazz composition.

“One day, John called and told me he needed a baritone sax player and asked if I’d join him on campus,” Clark recalls. “I almost dropped over — of course I said yes!” Clark was granted a teaching assistantship and a stipend.

Clark says the culture of the university is one of high expectations and good work ethic.

“There were never fewer than 20 but usually up to 100 people practicing their music at any given time,” he says. He also points to the quality of faculty. “There are world-class musicians who could be performing to make a living.”

Another highlight is the urban culture of Louisville. There are places to play, practice and “get your ass kicked,” he says while comparing programs in places like Huntington, W.Va., where the local scene does not offer such experiences. “Many students in Louisville spent half their time at the university and half their time in clubs.”

Bellarmine University also offers a bachelor’s degree in music with an emphasis in jazz studies. Every semester, there are eight to 12 combos of three to six players coached by one of the members of the jazz faculty. Other large ensembles, like nouveau gumbo, also are active each semester.

David Clark (far right) and trio musicians Butch Neeld and Pat Lentz | Photo by James Natsis

“Like any gumbo, it’s a mixture of a lot of stuff,” says Bellarmine professor of music and saxophonist David Clark. “Nouveau — we study as much of a modern language as we can, but based on a backbone of tradition.”

Clark believes it’s important to respect the youth and their view of music. “It’s 2017. I’m trying to meet students where they are, ask what they are into, and build on things,” he says. “We study all styles of music.”

The Arkansas native discovered jazz music almost as part of an epiphany in a state that is otherwise not known for a jazz tradition. He fell in love with the music and moved to Louisville in the early 1990s, where he studied music at UofL.

After graduating, he played music in local clubs before being invited in 2001 to teach at Bellarmine as a part-time instructor in the music department. He has since become a full-time faculty member and has played on Sunday mornings at the Marriott Hotel downtown for the past eight years.

Danny O’Bryan with his collection of photos and albums | Photo by James Natsis

Danny O’Bryan has hosted his “Jazz Insights” show on Sunday mornings from 8-10 a.m. on WFPK for nearly eight years as part of a weekly jazz program that airs till 3 p.m. The former saxophone player, singer, journalist and standup comedian plays one vocal-focused song to every two instrumental pieces.

“I play what I call a little old, a little new and a little in-between,” he says. He plays music during the first half of his show and interviews a guest in the second half. “I just rebroadcast last week an interview I did with Ella Fitzgerald back in 1978 when I was working for WUOL.”

O’Bryan has interviewed many big-name artists over the years, including the likes of Fitzgerald, Buddy Rich, Count Basie and others. He boasts a treasure chest collection of old albums and photos he has taken of music celebrities through the years at his home studio.

The future

Mentoring youth and stirring up an appreciation for the music and culture of jazz is key to its longevity.

Jamey Aebersold had just returned from Frankfort when we caught up with him where he had just played in front of college students at Kentucky State University.

Jamey Aebersold

“We played what we wanted, and I wondered what people were thinking about, what they thought,” says Aebersold. He explained that 30 years ago, students would have been more used to that type of music. But now, many young folks who watch jazz musicians don’t know they should clap after each instrumental solo.

He says he often shows them when and how to do it. “I was out there leading a clap chorus,” he says, adding that once you educate them, they like it. “It comes naturally once they start.”

Aeborsold acknowledges that the playing opportunities have diminished over the years and that it would be very difficult for someone to make a living playing live jazz in local clubs and restaurants. Much of this is attributed to the change in technology and the advent of devices such as keyboards and drum machines that have replaced many musicians.

However, he does see a more positive development in a number of schools that offer students the opportunity to play jazz either before or after class, and even as a credited course. For example, at Aebersold’s alma mater, New Albany High School, students taking the jazz ensemble course are provided with a balanced comprehensive study of music through the performance of the varied styles of instrumental jazz, developing musicianship in tone production, technical skills, intonation, music reading skills and the study of musical style.

The 77-year-old still participates in his annual two-week summer jazz workshops at UofL. He speaks with a sense of amazement at his own longevity and jokingly warns his friends and colleagues that “next year may be my last. This is it. So if you want to see me, you need to come now.”

In spite of the educational programs, restaurant and club venues, and a locally produced Sunday morning jazz radio lineup, Louisville has lacked a jazz club per se, with the closing of a few clubs in downtown Louisville and New Albany over the past several years.

The jazz club will be in the basement of Another Place Sandwich Shop.

That is about to change, however, with the recent announcement of a new jazz club opening downtown on Seventh Street near Market. Located in the basement of Another Place Sandwich Shop, the Jimmy Can’t Dance jazz club will resemble a traditional Manhattan jazz hall with New Orleans touches.

The timing of such a venue is not without coincidence. The transformation of the tourism industry in downtown Louisville and the surrounding neighborhoods has been spurred by “bourbonism” and a culinary scene that intersect well with the multidimensional sounds and culture of jazz.

Also, the Louisville Jazz Society is the Louisville area’s source for information and for connecting musicians and listeners throughout the community. Its website offers a well-updated calendar of events in the area.

Correction: The original version of this post incorrectly identified the name of UofL’s weeklong Jazz Fest.