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Cowtown's jazz crusaders

When I want to see live jazz, I go to ...
Posted 12:25pm on Wednesday, Sep. 08, 2010

For Donna VanNess, it's hard to think about a certain September evening a year ago.

She remembers it with a rueful poetry. "Saying good-bye to Sly Stone and George Clinton in the back of a Lincoln town car as it poured down rain," she said. "Yeah. That was terrible."

You can almost hear the soundtrack washing in to underscore the minor-key memory ... the plaintive piano tinkle, two brushes languidly sweeping across the snare drums.

It was supposed to be the pinnacle of the 7-year-old Jazz By the Boulevard festival, and VanNess was the entertainment director. With big-time headliners like funkmeister George Clinton, big-time jazz trumpeter Chris Botti and legendary gospel group The Blind Boys of Alabama, 2009's fest was expected to shatter attendance records.

But down came the rain, cruelly, just in time for the sold-out George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic show. The storms were so intense that they drowned out the Saturday night program, and forced the rest of the weekend's music inside Will Rogers Memorial Center.

"We were able to move people in, and it was a great show," VanNess said, "but the acoustics weren't great and it wasn't set up for that kind of concert. We did the best we could. It could've been so much bigger. To us, that was going to be the pinnacle of what we were going for. It was heartbreaking."

Turns out those showers were part of a great big beautiful storm that was already brewing in Fort Worth.

Cue up-tempo number with zippa-zappa horns, ratta-tatta drumwork and mad, cascading piano keys.

Other than the occasional clinker, all the right notes were falling into place for a jazz resurrection.

Meet Miss Jazz

This weekend, come rain or shine, Jazz By the Boulevard dives into its eighth year, with headliners such as Grammy-winner Stanley Clarke, Rolling Stone's first "Jazzman of the Year," and 24-year-old virtuoso Trombone Shorty, who'll be familiar to viewers of HBO's Treme. North Texas is also reaping the benefits of the fertile breeding ground in Denton, where the University of North Texas Jazz Studies Division is considered among the best in the country. (Its One O'Clock Lab Band has scored six Grammy nominations.). And local performers like Johnny Reno, New Orleans transplant Adonis Rose and UNT grad Tatiana Mayfield suddenly find themselves with more places to gig, thanks to several new jazz venues that have bubbled up in Fort Worth during the past few years: Scat Jazz Lounge, Buttons and the Ridglea Jazz Cafe. Some are looking at these places as tuneful beacons of hope that can help the city reclaim a piece of its hallowed musical history.

For a city its size, Fort Worth has an awe-inspiring jazz legacy, which, for too many, remains criminally forgotten. If you didn't live through it, if you're under a certain age, it's hard to picture it now, but from 1938 through 1950, it was a heady scene in Cowtown. Jazz flowed out of a staggering number of clubs along Rosedale Street and Evans Avenue. Just ask Miss Jazz.

That's what they call Marjorie Crenshaw of the Fort Worth Jazz Society. She's an 83-year-old encyclopedia of the art form. She'll tell you who played where, and how, as a young woman, she'd navigate all the clubs -- most within a stone's throw of each other: the Aristocrat Inn, the China Doll, the Bombay Room ("a beautiful place with an aquarium"), the Zebra Lounge, Billy's Bar. "And the Zanzibar," she says, "where the top rolled back and you could see the stars at night."

The Zanzibar was nationally known, as was the Jim Hotel downtown, where a lot of the giants -- including Duke Ellington and Count Basie -- passed through.

"Ornette Coleman lived near the Jim Hotel, and he learned from these other guys -- they'd let him sit in and play," Crenshaw says of Fort Worth's favorite jazz son.

No one's sure what was in the water at Crenshaw's alma mater -- the legendary I.M. Terrell High School -- but that's where a lot of greats came from. The most famous is the 80-year-old Pulitzer Prize-winner Coleman (who now lives in New York), but he heads a long list of locally bred jazz greats, including Dewey Redman (father of Joshua Redman), Charles Moffett, Julius Hemphill and Ronald Shannon Jackson.

Stepping down

But as the winds of change blew jazz into the background, and pop and rock music ruled the American music scene, the glorious surplus of jazz venues in Fort Worth eventually fizzled. Only a handful of places remained to carry the mantle. The '70s had Daddio's -- Nick Kithas' jazz club downtown, on Commerce, then on Fourth Street; and in 1983, Ed Bass brought the majestic Caravan of Dreams to Houston Street, with an opening that boasted Coleman and writer William S. Burroughs.

It fed the souls and ears of hungry jazz lovers for years to come.

"It was great," says jazz vocalist Victor Cager, who is on the bill at this year's Jazz By the Boulevard. "People in Dallas would come over to Fort Worth to Caravan of Dreams. We never had anything close to that in Dallas."

But after Caravan was mercilessly shuttered in 2001 to make way for Reata restaurant, jazz was left to be played in smaller places -- restaurants, bars and other venues like Sardine's Italian restaurant on University Drive, or during Sunday brunch at Kithas' Montgomery Avenue Jazz Cafe.

Fanning the flame

At the tail end of 2007, North Texas jazzman Ricki Derek and his partners in Dallas club the Cavern opened the stylish Scat Jazz Lounge.

"We wanted a swanky jazz club, to try to keep it like a speak-easy," Derek said. "What we've done is cross-pollinate more mature people who want a good scotch, and younger people who want to get away from the 9 million beers and fancy shots and elbow-to-elbow crowds. Young people like the vibe.... People have said that after the loss of Caravan of Dreams, that it was filling this sort of void."

Opening a jazz club is a leap of faith anytime these days, but as it happened, Scat opened in December 2007, which would later be declared the official start of the nation's current recession. But Derek and his partners had the support of Sundance Square, and they're closing in on three years in December.

"It feels really good right now," Derek says. "I don't think we've experienced any sort of nail-biting situation. Is everybody buying a house in Maui? No. But there's a tremendous vibe and buzz, and really respected players are saying we have a really great reputation and street cred nationally. That definitely makes it worthwhile, and we're getting more and more national acts wanting to come in after their [Bass Hall] shows and jam."

(Whispers are that members of Tony Bennett's band have popped by, and guys from Big Bad Voodoo Daddy sat in on a few numbers.)

And this May brought another player to the scene: restaurant and live music venue the Ridglea Jazz Cafe (no connection to the Jazz Cafe on Montgomery, although there's been some contention over the use of the name). It was opened by Stan Hatcher of soul-food favorite Hatch's Corner in Forest Hill, and George Johnson, who owns some Dickey's Barbecue stores.

Hatcher says he and his partners hope his business will help carry the torch for the city's jazz legacy.

"It's definitely a risk because our current business is a lot different -- we do airport concessions," says Hatcher, who describes the venue as a work in progress. "I believe that we're just about to hit our stride. The food is getting better since we've got two new chefs."

There's a different challenge when it comes to booking musical acts. "There are so many people calling who want to play, that it's a challenge to limit the number of people who want to perform."

Scat man Derek doesn't look at the Ridglea venue as a threat: "We say more power to you."

Young sophisticates

But do a few new venues a renaissance make? Johnny Reno thinks so. The blues and jazz musician now based in Fort Worth, was once a member of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Triple Threat Revue.

"Kind of right now is a heyday. Now there are more than ... no places where they play jazz music, which has happened on occasion," Reno says, laughing. "Definitely there's a thriving nature to it at this point ... with all the musicians on the scene. At TCU and UNT, there are a large number of young people who know and are learning jazz skills."

And, he said, it's crucial that people are creating serious outlets for the music.

"There's nothing in Dallas that's like what we have here," Reno says. "It's really delightful to see -- for me, mostly at Scat Jazz Lounge, I've seen this younger group of people, and they kind of dig it." He thinks they relate to Scat in a Mad Men-y, throwback kinda way. "They're saying: 'Oh, this is kind of a sophisticated place, like you might find in Los Angeles or New York or Chicago. And now we have one.'"

Soul-food impresario Keith Hicks of Buttons sees it, too. "The jazz scene is definitely starting to get bigger," he says. "I think there's definitely a need for it. First there really weren't that many people into it, but these different venues are making it cool. It's a place to come and have a couple of cocktails, and watch people sing. What's really more cool than jazz, you know?"

But not everyone sees this time as the next big jazz wave in Fort Worth.

"A resurgence? No," says Nick Kithas, who owns the original Jazz Cafe. "I think jazz musicians are more determined than ever to play music. But they have to make a living. The art is good, but if you look at it closely, it's underground; it's not really mainstream."

He calls the Scat Jazz Lounge "a great little place," but says he has doubts about the financial wherewithal of both it, and the new Ridglea restaurant. Kithas says it's simply not lucrative business. "I've maintained jazz for 40 years, and that's my business," he says, "and it doesn't make money."

Reno acknowledges jazz can be a tough sell. Like classical music -- also music for the masses once upon a time -- jazz faces a shrinking audience. "It probably seems kind of confusing to a lot of people because it's dense and the playing skills are pretty high-caliber," Reno says. "A lot of people say it's boring because 'nothing happens.' There's not a big light show, a pyrotechnic display. Nobody's jumping around and doing lots of dance moves like people are used to."

In fact, this year's Jazz By the Boulevard has expanded its lineup to include blues, funk, folk and local indie rock bands, all in hopes of attracting an audience beyond hard-core jazz enthusiasts.

"We can be our own worst enemy," Reno says of jazz insiders. Jazz musicians "do stick together, so if you don't like what we do, we don't care. We can come off [as] being somewhat elitist."

But sometimes, he says, when people realize that a lot of jazz musicians improvise, making music up on the spot, a light pops on in their heads. "Jazz music expects something of you," Reno says. "It demands intellectual curiosity from its audience. It's cerebral."

And then there's the power of crossover artists such as Norah Jones, Michael Bublé and Harry Connick Jr. "Those are doorways for people to explore a jazz-influenced style of music," Reno says.

Miss Jazz, who has seen it all in her 83 years, says that she hopes to see a full-scale Fort Worth jazz renaissance. "We're at least trying to keep it alive. I still have hopes that, in some kind of way, we'll bring a renaissance of jazz back," she says. "That's America's classical music."

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