Albuquerque: A Scene Blooms In The Desert A jazz fan visiting the desert city might equate the chances of seeing great live jazz there with the chances of getting caught in a rain shower. But since the 1970s, a devoted group of musicians and educators has turned the area into a hotbed for jazz performance.
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Albuquerque: A Scene Blooms In The Desert

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Albuquerque: A Scene Blooms In The Desert

Albuquerque: A Scene Blooms In The Desert

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From NPR News, it's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.


And I'm Melissa Block. Jazz in Albuquerque, New Mexico may seem about as likely as a rain shower in that desert city. While rain clouds are rare, jazz is flowing almost every day and night. So for the next story in our series on homegrown music scenes, we take you to Albuquerque. Reporter Paul Ingles explains how the city's jazz culture was built gig by gig.

PAUL INGLES: It actually did rain today, and the skies are iffy this evening. Charles Lowery knows the audience will come.

Mr. CHARLES LOWERY (Director, New Mexico Jazz Workshop): Oh, they'll be here. We're not worried about it. They'll get their cars. They'll be here.

INGLES: He's not worried because over the course of 15 years, the non-profit New Mexico Jazz Workshop that he runs has built a solid audience with these weekend outdoor concerts at the Albuquerque History Museum. Tonight's band is called Junto Colores(ph), a Latin jazz and salsa ensemble from neighboring Colorado.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing in Spanish)

INGLES: The New Mexico Jazz Workshop began in 1976 as a collective of just eight musicians in nearby Santa Fe who realized if they were going to survive as jazz players in the desert, they were going to have to hustle gigs and educate an audience. So they put on summer shows at a small town ball field between Santa Fe and Albuquerque and started a concerts in the school series.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: Enter Boston-raised avant-garde saxophonist Tom Guralnick, who briefly held the reins of the workshop in its earlier days, and then returned in 1985 with an idea that would transform the scene.

Mr. TOM GURALNICK (Avant-Garde Saxophonist): My idea was, in being here, that I would start another organization that did different kinds of experimental music and world music and then later, jazz. Key to what I wanted to do was to have a small performance space, like some of the places that I'd been to Europe.

INGLES: What he settled on was small: a storefront a block south of the legendary Route 66.

(Soundbite of a car engine)

Mr. GURALNICK: This was a print shop. It was owned by two brothers, the Furry(ph) brothers, believe it or not. And they built an apartment upstairs for their mother to live in.

INGLES: Like most jazz musicians, Guralnick wasn't rich. He sold his house to raise the money to buy the place and moved into the upstairs apartment. Below, he created a 90-seat, non-profit listening room - not a club. He called it the Outpost Performance Space.

Mr. GURALNICK: We set it up as a long, narrow space where people would only be three rows from the stage. You know, maybe it wasn't the perfect performance space, but it was what we had.

INGLES: Over the course of 10 years, with the help of some large grants, Guralnick was able to turn the Outpost into a tour stop for internationally known jazz musicians.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: The late soprano saxophonist Steve Lacey and trombonist Roswell Rudd played here in 1999.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: Lacey came to the Outpost a number of times from his home in Paris, and he wasn't alone. Pianist and composer Vijay Iyer, who's on the cover of this month's Downbeat magazine, says the reason is simple: People here come to listen.

Mr. VIJAY IYER (Jazz Pianist, Composer): Most of these venues, like, you know, if you go to some of the clubs in New York, these are great places to play, but you're always competing with what's on the menu. I mean, if every state in the United States had one venue like this, the entire landscape would be totally different.

INGLES: The landscape in Albuquerque has been carefully designed to build a supportive audience base. From the beginning of the jazz workshop, education for adults and young people was part of the plan.

Mr. GURALNICK: So I'll give two bars and a downbeat. Ready? Everybody gets a chorus.

INGLES: Those efforts continue today, with classes presented by both the workshop and the Outpost.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: One of the products of the Albuquerque scene is 25-year-old bass player Matt Brewer. He went to shows and took classes at the Outpost and started professionally when he was 12. Now he's one of Manhattan's most sought-after bassists.

Mr. MATT BREWER (Jazz Bassist): All the best players in New York that I've spoken with about Albuquerque have been really impressed with their time there, I mean, I think because the audiences are really attentive, and shows are often packed full of people. And I think people can tell that the organizations that are bringing shows in are run by people who actually have a passion and love for the music.

INGLES: It's certainly not to get rich, says the Outpost's Tom Guralnick.

Mr. GURALNICK: Club owners or non-profit organizations are not making a lot of money. Musicians are not making a lot of money. And we all support each other. You know, we're all in it for the same reason. And, in fact, all of my colleagues, jazz presenters, have been or still are musicians - I would say 90 percent of them. That's why we got into presenting music, because we believed in the music and know what it's about to be playing music.

INGLES: The jazz scene thrives in New Mexico because of the steady dedication of each member of the jazz community, says the workshop's Charles Lowery.

Mr. LOWERY: To help keep alive the education of young people, as well as adults, so that they appreciate, understand and support live music. I think that's precisely why we're in it. We know it has made and continues to make a difference in the lives of people. And it's good work. It's meaningful work.

INGLES: Because of those efforts, good musicians can keep busy enough to at least pay the mortgage, which is a lot cheaper here than in New York or Los Angeles.

Mr. GURALNICK: When I moved here, I realized that I could do anything that I wanted to do in the field of music.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: Dave Parlato moved here in 1990. He had been a top session bassist in Los Angeles, playing with everyone from Mos Allison to Frank Zappa. But, he says, in LA, that's all he was.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: Here, he not only plays his own music, he also directs the Outpost's education program.

Mr. DAVE PARLATO (Jazz Bassist): I can wear many more hats here, and it would be okay. I formed a big hand at the old Outpost and had that band for four years. I would have never even thought of doing that in Los Angeles.

(Soundbite of music)

INGLES: Parlato says New Mexico's vastness inspires his music. It did the same for jazz legends Herbie Mann, Kenny Devern and Frank Morgan, who all chose to live and play out some of their final years here.

Mr. GURALNICK: I don't know. New Mexico's a special place.

INGLES: Outpost director, Tom Guralnick.

Mr. GURALNICK: I mean, it really is. We call it the Land of Enchantment, which then turns into the Land of Entrapment. You know? People come here thinking that they're going to stay for a while, and like myself, 30 years later, here I am.

INGLES: This week, he'll be shuttling between Albuquerque and Santa Fe for concerts in annual New Mexico Jazz Festival, which runs through July 28th and features both the best of the local talent and a number of international stars.

For NPR News, I'm Paul Ingles.

(Soundbite of music)

BLOCK: At our Web site, you can hear performances from the Outpost and see a video about jazz in Albuquerque. That's in the music section at

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