The Rebirth of Real Jazz in Richmond

Ken Hohman By

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I'm seated at The Camel restaurant on a cool Sunday evening. As my taste buds soak up the malty taste of our fair city's own Legend Brown, my ears soak up the intoxicating sounds of two saxophones, alto and tenor, intertwining and advancing across a melodic line that has more turns than Riverside Drive along the James River. It's a complicated piece, but the two musicians in the Scott James Project, Jason Scott and Rick Reiger, handle it with skill and dexterity, exchanging visual cues with each other at each turn to ensure they remain in sync. As the song concludes, the melody constricts into a Gordian Knot of tones, forcing each saxophonist to push his skills to the limit. They finish with a hard stop and let out a great sigh of relief as the small crowd applauds and hoots for their efforts. I can hardly believe my ears. A spot-on version of the Lenny Tristano composition "327 East 32nd Street," performed live on stage right here in Richmond, Virginia, and all I paid was a five dollar cover. My friends in New York City and Chicago would be insanely jealous.

As host of the jazz radio show Freedom Jazz Dance in Richmond, Virginia for the past eight years, I've witnessed the rebirth of jazz in this city not only from the steadily rising stack of CDs I've accumulated in my "Local Artists" bin but also through conversations with performers, educators, dee-jays and jazz advocates. Richmond has always been a decent jazz town, but these days it feels as though we're riding on the crest of a bold new wave. Today, the overall musicianship of jazz artists in Richmond is light years ahead of the days when we were limited to applauding resurgent vocalist René Marie in local clubs, only to watch her soar off to other cities. When Rene left back in the late nineties, I thought that maybe the air had gone out of the scene for good and that perhaps I'd have to start road-tripping it to D.C. or NYC again. Was I ever wrong.

Every week in our town, with increasing frequency, extremely gifted and adventurous jazz musicians are laying down righteous grooves for all to hear. If you need a jazz fix, it's out there. On any given night, combos like the Fight The Big Bull, Ombak, the Alan Parker 5, the Jason Jenkins Group, the Butterbean Jazz Quartet, the Marcus Tenney Quintet, the John Conley Trio and the NO BS Brass Band are holding court on the makeshift stages and in corner sections of city restaurants. These shows run parallel with performances put on by the institutions that produced many of these bands, the Virginia Commonwealth University Jazz Program and the University of Richmond's Department of Music, as well as offerings from the Richmond Jazz Society, the Modlin Center, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, Dogwood Dell, local galleries and museums. If I didn't know any better, I'd think Richmond was in the midst of a bona fide jazz renaissance.

The wellspring of this new movement in jazz is undoubtedly the VCU Jazz Program and its resident maestros Antonio Garcia and Doug Richards (Director of Jazz Studies and Jazz Studies Program founder respectively). Over the past ten years and then some, they've nurtured a legion of gifted and intelligent musicians who, once they graduate, use our clubs, cafes and concert halls as their jazz laboratory for success beyond the city limits.

Garcia's teaching philosophy and perspective on the Richmond scene underscore the recent upsurge in live performances: "VCU Music is a 'school without walls.' Our students get to go out, gig in the city, learn and grow, come back to our classes and ensembles the next day, learn and grow, and go right back out to gig.

"One of the reasons I came to VCU in 2001 is that Richmond was such an ideal musical incubator surrounding the VCU Jazz Program. This city offers lots of opportunities for young players to experiment playing. Some of those gigs would never sustain an income for a family man in his 50s with three kids and a mortgage. But for a young musician wanting to get some bucks while getting his or her music out there? It sure beats working at the 7-11! In Richmond your music can get heard as you grow.

"I'm not responsible for first creating that atmosphere in Richmond, though I now have a very active hand in perpetuating and growing it as much as I possibly can. My own view is that it first and foremost comes from Richmond's being an arts-friendly town for a long time—not forever, as history shows—but supportive back to the earlier days of the VCU School of the Arts. This capital city has numerous museums and many, many galleries, which means that city residents have an interest in art as a whole, which speaks well for the potential interest in music and of course jazz."

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.

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