On Monday evenings at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in Jazz At Lincoln Center, there are some unique happenings. Right from the very opening night of the venue almost 2 years ago, Wynton Marsalis and his staff had a vision which has evolved into some of the most important jazz programming imaginable. Each Monday night student musicians from well known schools play at the club and patrons pay only a $10 minimum to see top-notch musicians from Juilliard, Manhattan School of Music or other prestigious institutions. Often, teachers from the schools also join in and are more than occasionally outshone by their students.
Last week I brought my own jazz class from Pace University to see Justin Di Cioccio the chair of the Jazz Arts program at the Manhattan School of Music conduct a "tentet of the school's finest jazzers playing the music of George Handy. Handy (aka Hendleman) is an all but forgotten composer/arranger whose contribution to the literature of the bebop period (he wrote excellent music for the ill-fated Boyd Raeburn band) was brilliantly commemorated by Di Cioccio and his tentet. Handy had studied with Aaron Copeland in the 40's and his music reflects classical influences (Barber, Stravinsky as well as Copeland) but swings in the mode of Ellington (another influence). The harmonic colors are totally unique and Handy's sound is immediately appealing. My Pace students were enthralled by the band (soloists Samuel Blaze and Joe Sailor stood out) and the Monday ambiance at Dizzy's. Di Cioccio's musical passion and informative, entertaining patter is the perfect emblem for the serious but informal jazz happenings at Dizzy's on Monday nights.
Holiday jazz roared into town as Jay Leonhart & family whooped it up for a post- thanksgiving audience at the Knickerbocker Grill. Bassist/ producer Leonhart has spawned a family of jazz whizzes and hardly an evening goes by in Gotham without one of the clan appearing somewhere. At the Knickerbocker, the family showed off their vocal and instrumental wizardry in a dinner concert that brought visitors from as far away as England into the room for the holiday fun. Wife Donna and daughter Carolyn together with poppa Jay intoned considerably clever lyrics penned collectively while trumpeter Michael (Jay's son) played silky smooth improvisational lines over standard melodies.
My friend and jazz colleague Makis Morakis came into town all the way from Mykonos to catch the holiday happenings and quickly agreed that the group we saw at Smoke for a late night set a high water mark for the Thanksgiving weekend. Dave Hazeltine led a quintet of Smoke regulars that included vibraphonist provocateur Joe Locke, bassist David Williams, drummer Joe Farnsworth, and tenorist superieur Eric Alexander. The execution was stupendous and drew packed crowds even for the midnight set. It is interesting that Manhattan jazz audiences seem to sniff out the rarified air at Smoke, a room that has climbed steadily to the top rung of Gotham's jazz joints.