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 timenot forever, as history showsbut 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."