Jazzin’ it Up

Jazz may be – as Solvang Jazz Festival founder Stix Hooper pointed out last week – the only indigenous American art form, but the way it’s been treated lately in its homeland, it might as well be an illegal alien up against a wary border patrol. Only in a few major cities will you find full-time jazz clubs, and no longer in Santa Barbara, since the ambitious little experiment known as the Jazz Hall closed its doors more than a decade ago. (But thankfully, not before influencing a young local drummer named Shaun Oster, who to this day credits the club’s two-year history with inspiring him; the results were evident in two of the last three Courthouse Jazz dates, when Oster handled the drum kit for what were easily the two best shows of the series so far).

The genre has had its ups and downs in Santa Barbara, with some give and take along the way. Programmers at UCSB and the Lobero have managed to bring some bigger names to town, and a fierce devotion to a weekly jazz night (Mondays) at SOhO – despite absurdly poor attendance at some gigs, including the recent Christian Scott show that had less than a dozen paying audience members – has broadened the landscape. But the city hasn’t had a jazz festival since 1999, when Montecito’s Peter Clark took over the annual money-losing beach bash and proceeded to take an even bigger bath than his predecessors in its final year. All we have now is the mostly execrable Santa Barbara Smooth Jazz Festival, which thankfully is skipping its fourth year this fall due to construction at the Santa Barbara Zoo.

So let’s give huge kudos to Hooper and the Solvang Jazz Festival. The former Crusaders drummer conceived of and created a four-show event last weekend in the tiny Danish village that was chock full of the real stuff, including big band swing with veteran players from the bands of the actual Swing Era, and an up and coming pianist making his area debut. We caught the final night’s all-star jam featuring flutist Hubert Laws, pianist Patrice Rushen, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, percussionist Airto Moriera, saxist Bob Sheppard and others, not a one under the age of 53 (and most significantly older) and all sporting resumes that should make programmers at KMGQ blush.

While the musicians had surely played together in various ensembles, they’d never before appeared on a single stage in this format. Yet despite the complaints about the cold weather at the Festival Theatre, the jazz was both hot and heartwarming, filled with the kind of hard bop improvisation these cats have played so long they could mail them in but instead played mostly with a sharp edge and wit. How great to hear such numbers as Hubbard’s “First Light” and Laws’ “Morning Star” again – the first time for this listener in more than 25 years since he regularly attended the Newport Jazz Festival in New York.

It was gratifying to see a crowd of about 400 on hand on the chilly early fall evening, and both musicians and organizers pronounced themselves pleased at the post-concert reception. As a beaming Hooper made the rounds, he told me he expected to be back again next year. Let’s hope so. It would be a shame to lose something so promising, and yes, so uniquely American.

Closer To Home

Santa Barbara trumpeter-crooner Nate Birkey brings along his fine band of local luminaries for this final gig Thursday (October 4) in the inaugural Courthouse Jazz series, the weekly gig at the underutilized venue with the stunning ambiance and truly fine acoustics. Attendance has been picking up in recent weeks, but a good turnout tonight should go a long way toward guaranteeing the shows will go on again next late summer-early fall. CASA is the well-deserving beneficiary of profits from food and beverage sales for the event, slated from 5-8pm.

Following the show, you can check out Santa Barbara flutist-singer Rebecca Kleinmann, who brings her New Quartet to the Tortilla Factory, just off Milpas Street, for a concert that will be videotaped and recorded beginning at 8 pm. Kleinmann reports this is the only local opportunity to hear her and Tobias Roberson (percussion), Miles Jay (bass), Myra Chaney (cello) and Dusty Brough (guitar) performing together until next summer.

And if you’ve gotten into the Thursday jazz habit, no reason to give it up just yet. Grammy Award-winning singer Steve Tyrell makes his Santa Barbara debut with the 18-piece Hollywood Jazz Orchestra at UCSB in their first concert together on Oct. 11. Tyrell’s raspy vocals sound nothing like his hero, Frank Sinatra, but his easygoing approach to standards insinuates itself just the same.