Columbus is a fairly jazz-friendly city. It doesn’t always seem that way in conversations with programming people for various venues and organizations, but from a player’s perspective, there is actually a fair amount of opportunity. Deck parties, corporate events, art gallery receptions and wedding receptions pay well, and the crowds generally are appreciative.
Restaurants sometimes provide work as well. I’ve had standing residencies at most downtown eateries at one time or another, sometimes solo, sometimes in a duo context. I even hosted a weekly jazz series at one bar, in which I’d bring in guests of my choosing each Thursday. That was a lot of fun. For several years, I played the farmers market a few Saturdays each summer.
For such gigs, I’ve generally stuck to standards. I go for a mix of ballads and up-tempo numbers. I think the reason standards have always been the staple of the jazz repertoire is that jazz has always been about a simultaneous nod to heritage and exploration of new territory. Of all the American music forms, it is most distinguished by the sense of standing on giants’ shoulders, of building on the contributions of players and composers who came before you.
That notion gets strong reinforcement here. Central Indiana is, indeed, sacred ground from a jazz standpoint.
Certainly there is the Indiana Avenue scene in Indianapolis that spawned a steady stream of talent from the 1920s through the 1960s (a scene documented in my novel, “High C at the Sunset Terrace”), but the presence of the historic Gennett recording studio in Richmond in the ’20s was a huge factor as well.
Louis Armstrong cut his first sides there in 1923, as did Bix Beiderbecke the following year. Jelly Roll Morton likewise made some of his most important recordings there.
This is a point I try to impress upon students in my jazz history classes at IUPUC. I invite them to visualize Bix and Hoagy Carmichael knocking back bootleg liquor in the basement of the Sigma Chi house in Bloomington, listening to King Oliver records. They very likely trekked right through this area on their way to recording dates at Gennett.
Of course, more recently, the Jacobs School of Music at IU has had one of the world’s premier jazz studies programs, and the pioneer jazz educator Jamey Aebersold has put on his summer workshops in Louisville for more than 40 years.
Some of the faculty for these institutions comes from afar, but many of those world-class teacher-players live and work among us.
Their students do as well. I’ve been blessed to find absolutely fantastic people with whom to form duos, trios, quartets and quintets.
While hewing fairly closely to the Great American Songbook is generally the way to go at the kinds of gigs available in Columbus, sometimes the moment is right for some hard bop or modal adventures.
A quintet I had in 2012 called Dig played the downtown block party that summer, and during a couple of numbers, after everyone had taken solos, we agreed, basically by telepathy, to trade fours. The crowd loved it.
That’s the unique charm of jazz. It’s an instant community builder. You can’t play good jazz if your motive is to deliver glitz or stroke your ego.
It’s all about taking your cue from the other cats on the bandstand and going where the group consensus says to go. Certainly, you have an individual contribution to make, not only during your solos, but in the way you approach comping for the others.
To all Columbus jazz players: step forward and let’s blow!
Barney Quick is one of the Republic’s community columnists. All opinions expressed are those of the writer. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.