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The Rebirth of Real Jazz in Richmond

By Published: January 7, 2010
Garcia might have added that the VCU jazz faculty is world class, boasting artists like globe-trotting trumpeter and master soloist Rex Richardson, veteran jazz professors Bob Hallahan and Skip Gailes, as well as energized alums like trombonist Bryan Hooten, trumpeter Taylor Barnett, multi-instrumentalist J.C. Kuhl and prolific drummer Brian Jones.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to watch Brian Jones lead a quartet playing outdoors at Forest Hill Park. It was top-flight jazz all the way around. Afterward, he gave me four discs' worth of sessions he had led with various combos. I took them home, gave them a listen and was blown away. Back in the day, when a local artist gave me a CD to review or play on the air, it would be mostly covers of jazz standards mixed in with some "smooth jazz" to make their music accessible. But these CDs—by Lux, Rich Man, Poor Man, Snakeform, and Duo—were different. They were comprised of the real thing. I heard jazz that was daring, with forward-thinking compositions, ideas that were fully realized, and a level of improvisation you would only expect from NYC or Boston jazz artists. They helped me appreciate just how robust this groundswell of new jazz in Richmond had become and how committed Richmond's jazz artists were to taking their music to the next level.

"I think Richmond has been fortunate to have great teachers—Doug Richards, Howard Curtis, Skip Gailes through the years—educators who have stressed creativity, combined with strong musicianship," says Jones. "VCU has been very important as a hub for young musicians to exchange ideas. As far as I'm concerned, all of my teachers were very open-minded, yet always had a strong opinion of what they believed in musically. Because of that, their students were like that too. They always told me to follow the music, and strive for an original concept of playing. I was really lucky to have such generous teachers."

The next week Jones led a Mingus Awareness Project show at a local gallery that attracted a huge crowd. This amazed me as well. Not that long ago, you could drive for a day in any direction from Richmond and not find a Charles Mingus tribute show on any day of the year. In cities like Baltimore or Charlotte, the closest thing you might find to live jazz would be a Nora Jones concert once a year. Maybe the latest pop-jazz crossover artist in Norfolk or some Ellington in D.C., but a Mingus tribute band for under ten bucks? No way.

The growth of Richmond jazz hasn't been limited to live performances, either. Among local radio stations 88.9 FM WCVE, 90.1 FM WDCE and 97.3 WRIR, you can hear jazz over the airwaves or via webcast virtually seven days a week. I don't know of any town south of Philadelphia—D.C. included—that offers jazz over the airwaves on such a consistent basis. The convergence of all this great jazz is quickly making Richmond a hotbed for some of the most engaging and creative jazz on the East Coast. It's a great time to be a jazz fan in Richmond.

Photo Credit

Jake Lyell

Ed Christesen

Will Fisher

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