“Dallas doesn’t have a jazz scene.”
Oh, bite me. Jazz lovers can enjoy a vigorous jam hosted by Shelly Carroll every Monday at the Amsterdam Bar. They can take in a wide array of jazz acts at Tuesday Nite Jazz in the acoustically sumptuous St. Paul Methodist Church. First Wednesday is Sammons Jazz and Sammons Cabaret is on third Thursdays, both at the historic Sammons Center for the Arts. Jazz in the Atrium brings in the crowds every Thursday at the Dallas Museum of Art. You’ll find jazz ensembles nightly at the Balcony Club, and every weekend and many weeknights at restaurants like Buttons, Eddie V’s, The Free Man, Sambuca (Uptown), and Soho Food and Jazz. The Dallas Jazz Orchestra continues to bring down the house at the Village Country Club every Sunday as it has done for 39 years.
That’s not counting the occasional, tasty small-ensemble jazz gigs at places like Stoney’s Wine Lounge and Times Ten Cellars. Or the mighty fine jazz found, often for free, at Southern Methodist University and University of Texas at Dallas. Fort Worth has a small but lively jazz scene centered on the Scat Jazz Lounge with its Black Dog jam every Sunday. And don’t even get me started about Denton, where University of North Texas’ famed jazz school dominates the scene. Jazz from aspiring students to national greats perform all the time and the annual Denton Arts & Jazz Fest is a big deal. Booker T. Washington High School for the Performing & Visual Arts, also known as Arts Magnet, has churned out contemporary jazz stars like Roy Hargrove and Earl Harvin, and will continue to do so.
Yes, Dallas once had a jazz heyday with nightclubs like Recovery Room and legendary jams at the Woodman Auditorium that even Ray Charles checked in. Big names like James Clay and David “Fathead” Newman were blowing people away right and left. There were echoes of Red Garland, shadows of Ornette Coleman, inferences of Cedar Walton. It was a hot scene. But that jazz-era ship has sailed, not just in Dallas, but all over the nation. Maybe the fuss is all about the tyranny of expectations. Trashing today’s North Texas jazz scene is like dissing your dog because it can’t measure up to gauzy memories of your childhood pet. For a city this size in the South renowned for its suburban ethos and C&W music, it’s a darn fine jazz scene.
Jazz Appreciation Month
Jazz is an American creation, as brash, quirky and evolving as the country itself. The musical lineage of jazz fused West African rhythmic work songs, field hollers, shouts and chants of slaves, with call-and-response spirituals and urban pentatonic-based blues of African-Americans. The nascent style found a home along with a host of Caribbean influences in New Orleans. The wide-open port culture allowed jazz to take root, first in ragtime and Dixieland. In the ‘20s and ‘30s, jazz took hold of the nation in the Jazz Age when a greater sense of western harmony and swing kicked in. By the ‘40s, jazz was entwined with tight Big Bang arrangements, which set up the reaction of the loose-limbed ‘50s, from bebop into cool jazz, hard bop and beyond. Jazz continues to evolve, even outside of what many consider to be the definition of jazz.
This history of jazz and the qualities which define it are celebrated every April in Jazz Appreciation Month, led by the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. UNESCO commemorates jazz and its long history with human rights in International Jazz Day on April 30. North Texas manifests all that as DJAM, Dallas Jazz Appreciation Month: 30 days of special concerts and festivals highlighting the uniquely American art form. The month was officially declared DJAM by Dallas mayor Mike Rawlings.
DJAM kicks off with an all-star “Jazz Legend” event of performances and awards for jazz artist (Roger Boykin), educator (James Wilson), donor (John Strauss) and patron (Junko and Shinji Otsu). The month includes a big show at the City Performance Hall featuring the Grammy-winning UNT One O’Clock Lab Band with performers from the Sammons Jazz series. In between, Jazz in the Atrium and Dallas Jazz Orchestra (DJO) shows will highlight greats in jazz history. DJO steps out in a big show at the Lakewood Theater with guest trumpeter Bobby Shew. A performance of Jampact, featuring the dean of SMU Meadows School of the Arts, is always a don’t-miss since they play so seldom. The TECO Theater Jazz Series shines with Peter White and Cindy Bradley. David Sanborn headlines the Denton Arts and Jazz Festival and Randy Brecker is featured at the TCU Jazz Festival.
HOW TO BE A GOOD JAZZER
Jazz has morphed and splintered into hundreds of sub-genres. Irritating jazz snobs will always insist their favored jazz style is the only “true” jazz genre. You don’t want to be that jazzer. Instead be the one that’s glad any jazz exists at all amid a pop hegemony. This is not a peak time for music with an instrumental emphasis, especially live. So go to a jazz club already!
The one thing shared by all jazz styles is an emphasis on improvisation. The jazz artist is expected to personally interpret a jazz theme, melody or mode. Most often the performance stays within a framework that multiple musicians share as a common ground, agreeing at least upon a time signature and key. Sometimes the improvisation is restricted to solos.
But any live jazz performance is always new, never the same. It’s challenging, sometimes too much so if comfort and repetitiveness is what floats your musical boat. Good jazz ears are sensitive to subtle patterns. Nestled at the heart of jazz appreciation are fine qualities like openness, acceptance and tolerance, patiently allowing things to unfold and develop. So point out to your jazz newbie friend the individual musical voices and interactions amid what sometimes sounds like a blur.
Be proud of jazz and what it stands for. Jazz was once marginalized for being associated with African American and Latino cultures. The mixing of international and white cultures through jazz musicians helped create a foundation upon which future racial progress was built. With its emphasis on instrumental expression, it transcends boundaries. Jazz is the language of peace.
Local live performance is where jazz lives best. Jazzers must make a case for patronizing jazz clubs with their friends, for that’s where jazz talent and future recordings originates. Jazz in North Texas is always struggling to transcend the lounge, to be something more than accompaniment to food. If your impression of jazz comes from dinner, stay late for the third set on Sundays or weekdays, when the crowd thins out and the musicality revs up. Then you’ll experience the magic of the moment that jazz aspires to be.