Inside Jazz Hot Spots Around the Nation As our series on jazz continues, Farai Chideya uncovers the remaining American jazz meccas and finds out how live venues have shaped the art of jazz. Joining in are Ron Sturm, owner of the Iridium Jazz Club; musician Dennis Winslett; and Peter Williams, artistic director of Yoshi's Jazz Club.
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Inside Jazz Hot Spots Around the Nation

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Inside Jazz Hot Spots Around the Nation

Inside Jazz Hot Spots Around the Nation

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This is News & Notes. I'm Farai Chideya. This month, we're talking about jazz. Who plays it, where it came from and how it was born. Today, we want to find out where you can hear it. Are there any jazz meccas left in the country, and how have live venues helped shape and create some of greatest jazz artists? With us now, Ron Sturm. He's the owner of Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. Also, saxophonist Dennis Winslett. He's an education specialist at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. And Peter Williams. He's the artistic director of Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland, and now San Francisco as well. Welcome everyone.

Mr. RON STURM (Owner, Iridium Jazz Club, New York City): Hi.

Mr. DENNIS WINSLETT (Education Specialist, American Jazz Museum, Kansas City; Saxophonist): Nice to meet you. Good to be here.

Mr. PETER WILLIAMS (Artistic Director, Yoshi's Jazz Club, Oakland & San Francisco): Hi.

CHIDEYA: So Dennis, let me start with you. When people think of jazz, they think of New Orleans, but what other cities have been jazz meccas throughout the years?

Mr. WINSLETT: I think as you see the progression of jazz throughout American culture, each city has built its own brand. And even today, when you go to New York, you know, there's different schools. So people are like, I'm from Chicago. I'm from St. Louis, you know, there's these different brotherhoods, and each has their own unique sound that were developed regionally. And I think New York has just become a melting pot of all these different regions coming together in one place.

CHIDEYA: Dennis, you're a Kansas City native. What's the culture that you grew up in as a musician?

Mr. WINSLETT: Well, I was one of the last generation to come up under the tutelage of the Mutual Musicians Foundation, which is one of the venues that's been here since 1930 and was the home of the six-two-seven Negroes Musician Union. So I got to hang out with some of those musicians - the elder statesmen, so to speak. And so there was a rich history, a rich heritage that I was able to come up in and take part of. And that is very much an undercurrent today, but it's still very much alive here in Kansas City.

CHIDEYA: Well, before we go on, tell me about this union, the six-two-seven. What is - what was it about? Who was it started by?

Mr. WINSLETT: Well, the six-two-seven, during the heyday of Kansas City - you know, we say that jazz was born in New Orleans, but it grew up here in Kansas City. The unions were separate. The 18th and Vine District, which was the entertainment district here in Kansas City, had every day(ph) over 125 clubs that reigned. And of course, Tom Pendergast, who was the mayor of Kansas City - Boss Pendergast, as he was known - pretty much opened this city up.

And during prohibition - people don't know this - there was one felony conviction of alcohol possession in the city of Kansas City. And so musicians flocked to Kansas City, because they could make a very good living. And you had to be a member, if you were a black musician, of the six-two-seven to work. And they would go around and make sure that the musicians got paid, because it wasn't like if you didn't get paid, you could go downtown and file a lawsuit.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WINSLETT: And so they brokered with, you know, the club owners and the powers that be to make sure the musicians got paid. And that's one of the ways that we would keep track of some of the great musicians such as Charlie Parker. First thing they did when they came to town, they went to the union hall and they paid their union dues and got their card so they could perform.

CHIDEYA: Ron, from your point of view, what do you think is - what cities and, you know, are still the heart of jazz today?

Mr. STURM: That's a really good question. From my vantage point, New York has to be one of the most diverse and interesting meccas for jazz, just because of the sheer volume and depth and breadth of what we offer here. I only really know it from the jazz club perspective of, like, where there are hotbeds of, like, important jazz clubs, not as a musician. So I'm coming from it as a different perspective. Like, you know, Yoshi's in California is very well respected, and Iridium here, and Blue Note, and Birdland, and Vanguard. We have a big pocket here. New York is pretty important because we just can support so many jazz clubs and live music offerings. That's why I think New York is - it's just amazing how much music we have here, jazz music.

CHIDEYA: I'm going to go back to New York in a second and have you talk about that.

Mr. STURM: Yeah.

CHIDEYA: But I want to dip in to Yoshi's, because there's - what role does it play for a West Coast audience? People from the East Coast may not know much about it.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, we bring - I'd have to agree with Ron there. To me, New York is definitely the jazz capital of the world. So many of the musicians that I bring to Yoshi's come from New York. They - just everybody lives there. So we've got a pretty good scene out here on the West Coast, but we've got a long way to go to catch up to New York.

Mr. STURM: It's just - it's a function of the audience that is out there to hear, you know, the live music. You know, where it's going to be the biggest pockets.

Mr. WINSLETT: Yeah. New York is such a media mecca, and that's where, you know, musicians go.

Mr. STURM: That's true. That's what it is.

Mr. WINSLETT: You know, to meet up and to put bands together with musicians of the highest level.

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's also so easy to get to Europe from New York. I think that that's what I hear from a lot of the musicians that come out here as well.

CHIDEYA: Ron, let's talk about the Vanguard, the Village Vanguard, the most notable, arguably, jazz club still standing. As a jazz club owner, what has the Vanguard, from your perspective, done for jazz?

Mr. STURM: It's just a - it's such an institution. It's been, I think, playing live music since the '30s? Is that correct? I think the '30s. It's just a very important home for jazz because from a business perspective, they can do a lot of - they can break a lot of acts and do a lot of artists that a lot of us can't necessarily do, because they're the Vanguard. Like Iridium has done, Yoshi's and Vanguard, and we all have our special brand and our name. And people are going to come hear the music at a certain club. And the Vanguard is kind of like - it's a vanguard, you know? The name is synonymous.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Any time I talk to people here in California who are going to New York, that's always on their list of clubs they want to see.

Mr. STURM: Yeah. It doesn't matter who's playing there.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Exactly. It's the most famous jazz club. There were probably more live recordings made at the Vanguard than all other clubs combined, I would think.

CHIDEYA: Not a huge club, either.

Mr. WILLIAMS: No. It's a small room, but the sound is good, and it's just - it's got a vibe, and it's got a scene. And people love to go there.

Mr. STURM: Yeah. It's its own...

Mr. WILLIAMS: It's a great historical spot.

Mr. STURM: Yeah. It's its own little spot, that's special.

CHIDEYA: Dennis, let's turn to performances. When you think of historical live performances, does anyone artist come to mine?

Mr. WINSLETT: Probably Charlie Parker at Massey Hall, where he comes out with this little graft-in-plastic (ph) saxophone and plays an incredible concert with some of the, you know, the icons of jazz - Dizzy Gillespie, and Max Roach, and I think Charles Mingus was on that date. And I think that's one of the beauty - you talked about, you know, the Vanguard.

You think about all the live recordings and the - and part of the club experience is coming and seeing the musicians react to what's going on at the club that night. You know, and Charlie Parker was notorious for, you know, picking up something that was happening in the club and interjecting it into a tune. I think that's part of the essence of places like the Vanguard and Birdland, if you think about historic clubs.

CHIDEYA: Well, we want to play a little bit of Charlie Parker. This is a tune called "Blue 'n' Boogie."

(Soundbite of live jazz recording)

Unidentified Announcer: And those are the gentlemen that are here up until this coming Wednesday. And we'd love for you to come by and dig Dizzy, and Bird, and Bud Powell, who I've said before. Three of the greatest gentlemen of modern music. What do we first?

Mr. CHARLIE PARKER (Jazz Musician): Blue 'n' Boogie.

Unidentified Announcer: You say you will. That was made with Dexter, wasn't it, years ago? Here it is. Blue 'n' Boogie.

(Soundbite of song "Blue 'n' Boogie")

CHIDEYA: So you can tell that there was a joi de vivre there. There was this, you know, camaraderie. You know, Peter, when you hear that, what did you hear?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, you just heard - you could sort of tell that there was some joking around with the musicians going on stage when the announcer was talking. And they just wanted to start blowing. They didn't even want to let him finish what he had to say. They just jumped in while he was going. And you know, there's just such a spark and energy to this particular track and to jazz in general. That's why I'm here. That's why I love it.

And I was thinking just a minute ago, one of the things that I love about jazz - and I'm sure that Dennis and Ron both agree - if you see a band two night in a row and they play the same song, it's going to be different. Whereas other styles of music, you know - the jazz musicians are reacting to the audience and what's going on and it can be a slow tune one night and pick it up the next and there's so much freedom and so much energy to the music and picking up on what's going on around them. That's one of my favorite things about it.

CHIDEYA: We're talking with Peter Williams. He's the artistic director of Yoshi's Jazz Club in Oakland and also now another branch in San Francisco. We also have Dennis Winslett. He's an education specialist at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. And Ron Sturm, the owner of Iridium Jazz Club in New York City. This is NPR's News & Notes, in case you're just tuning in mid-way.

So I want to go, Peter, and play a little bit of what was recorded live at Yoshi's. Here's a little bit of pianist Mulgrew Miller's live recording at your club.

(Soundbite of piano jazz)

CHIDEYA: Were you there for that recording?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I was. It was a great night. Mulgrew and the trio were in just great moods. They were excited about doing the recording. They'd been on a little mini-tour and had just come up from Los Angeles. So the band was really geared up for this recording, and it's documented on two different CDs, "Live at Yoshi's Volumes One and Two" from MaxJazz. And just to me, it's just epitomizes what jazz is all about. They play standards, they do some original tunes, the band stretches out and Mulgrew Miller is just such a brilliant player.

CHIDEYA: Ron, when you think about some of the different moments you've had in your life as a fan, is there anything that stands out, just from a fan perspective entirely?

Mr. STURM: Well the coolest thing that I've seen was when at the club there was a jam session and Wynton Marsalis was playing with Lionel Hampton, and Lionel Hampton was...


Mr. STURM: Yeah, that was really cool. And Lionel Hampton was, you know, very old, but there was still a fire in his eyes. It was towards the end of his life. He was playing piano just with like one finger or something, but, you know, there's so much transmitted in that one finger that it was amazing. It's just, you know, the older the jazz musicians get, it seems like the more - I mean, I don't want to make a generalization, but you really need to live to play to jazz I think. And when you get to that level, it's like there's something that pervades the music that's unbelievable and you can't quantify it.

CHIDEYA: Dennis, we've talked on this series about how do you do outreach to people who may not be familiar with jazz. And again, you're an education specialist at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City. So what do you do? How do you reach out to people who may not be the typical audience, who may not have a long body of stories about when I was at Birdland (ph), I saw so, so and so?

Mr. WINSLETT: Yeah. And you know, my experience, you know, I spend quite a bit of time in Chicago, just really falling in love with the Grass Roots Club and places like, you know, Freddie Anderson's (ph) Velvet Lounge on the south side. You know, the smaller clubs that will take a risk of bringing in artists. You know, when I was up and coming, didn't have a big name, you know. My music wasn't mainstream, but they just said hey, come and play and build an audience.

And that's one of the things that we have the luxury of doing, you know, at the American Jazz Museum with our Blue Room-like club, which has really become one of the, you know, the clubs in the Midwest that can bring in artists that normally wouldn't come in because we're not - because we're non-profit, we're not necessarily tied to, you know, having to deal with overhead, which is, you know, a big thing for lots of jazz clubs today. And to present music for art's sake, not because it's going to - we know that we are going to be able to draw a profit from it.

But that's one of the things that I enjoy as a musician and as an educator is being able to bring in something that you may not have heard before because it just monetarily wasn't viable for, you know, the mainstream clubs to bring these acts in.

CHIDEYA: Ron, do you like going to the underground clubs still? I mean, yours is a major venue, but are there any holes in the wall that you like to visit?

Mr. STURM: Yeah, there are a couple of clubs in New York that are interesting. I just wanted to make a point that it's true that there needs to be a hotbed of smaller clubs and non-profit organizations to bring the music out. It's really important, because there is - it's not viable all the time to break acts that you'd want to break.

CHIDEYA: Well let's listen to a little bit of the Mingus Big Band, which performs every Tuesday night at Iridium. Here's some of their live performance.

(Soundbite of jazz music by the Mingus Big Band)

CHIDEYA: How would you describe your crowd? Who shows up to see this music?

Mr. STURM: Mingus has its own audience, and every - and we have Les Paul on Monday and that has its own audience. It's diverse. It's about 50 percent towards - 50 percent locals. But it depends on the night, it depends on who's playing.

CHIDEYA: What about age?

Mr. STURM: Age, thankfully we're starting to see some younger people come into the music, which is nice. College age to like 50s or 60s, I would say. But our - I think our target is about 40-odd.

CHIDEYA: And Peter, at Yoshi's, you've got one in Oakland and one in San Francisco, which are geographically pretty close, but as people who have lived or been to the Bay know, there's kind of these micro-neighborhoods, so they're not really the same. But what about the age or the type of people who come into your clubs?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, like Ron said, it really kind of varies from act to act. We like to say at Yoshi's that we get everybody in from eight to 80. One of the things that we do is we have - we've done it for a few years, we stopped it and we're just starting up again - is Sunday matinee for kids. So they go during the day, they start at two in the afternoon. We have a very, very discounted ticket for the kids, because that's what we have to do. We've got to get kids in to see this music and hear it and learn about it. And, you know, maybe they'll be bringing their kids to the matinees down the line.

But we really do. We'll see, you know, high school, college kids, and we'll see seniors. And it's just really dependent on who the act is and what's in the club.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well gentlemen, I want to thank you for sharing your time with us.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well thank you very much for doing this.

Mr. STURM: Yeah, thank you very much. It's very important. And there's something about seeing live music that really beats anything. And we can encourage people to obviously go out and hear it.

CHIDEYA: All right. Well Dennis, we're going to go out playing a bit of your music, "Soul Journey." We were speaking with Dennis Winslett, he's a saxophonist and an education specialist at the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri. He spoke with us from the studios at member station KCUR. Ron Sturm is the owner of New York's Iridium Jazz Club. He joined us from our NPR studios in New York. And Peter Williams is the artistic director of Yoshi's Jazz Clubs in Oakland and San Francisco. He was at KQED in San Francisco.

(Soundbite of song "Soul Journey")

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