Jazz Jams in Grand Rapids

Something is happening with jazz in Grand Rapids. Overnight, it seems, the art form which hitherto has garnered lots of respect but little support is coming into its own in this area. People are turning out to hear live jazz. It has been a long time coming, and it's good to see. Last night I went to a jam session at the Winchester, located at 648 Wealthy Street SE. Running from 9:30 to 12:30, the session is hosted by trumpeter Chris Lawrence, with John Shea on keyboards and a rotating lineup of bass players and drummers. Besides being an incendiary improviser, Chris does a splendid job fronting the session, and he has an enthusiastic audience. A number of great area jazz musicians showed up to share their talents, among them veteran drummer Scott Veenstra, vocalist Kathy LaMar (she's a marvel!), and keyboard wizard Steve Talaga. Steve arrived after wrapping up his own earlier jam session down the street at Billy's in Eastown. I haven't made it to that session yet, but it's on my list. Like the one at the Winchester, it's new, and it amazes me in the pleasantest way that, suddenly, not just one but two Tuesday night jazz jam sessions have emerged right down the road from each other. Steve's runs from 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. at 1437 Wealthy. A guest musician could close out that session and then, if so inclined, head over to the Winchester and still have plenty more time to play. Both of the Tuesday sessions are recent and very welcome developments, and the Winchester and Billy's are to be saluted for supporting them. But that's not the end of it. Across town on Sunday nights is where the session with a history to it takes place. At SpeakEZ Lounge, 600 Monroe NW, well-known drummer and harmonica man Randy Marsh hosts this town's longest ongoing jam session. The session began a couple years ago at HopCat, where it ran for quite a while before moving to SpeakEZ. The second location is an excellent venue for Randy, who rotates a consistently topnotch cast of section players and provides a welcoming setting for visiting musicians to air out their chops. Blowing sessions are a part of the jazz tradition, and to see them emerge and succeed here in Grand Rapids seems to me a litmus test of the state of the art. West Michigan has got some world-class musicians as well as a heap of upcoming talent, and I'm delighted to see room being made for all. I have an idea that there's a link between the explosion of craft beer in this town and the ascendance of live jazz. Beer--good beer--is art, and artists recognize and support other artists. In a town that has been named Beer City for two years running in the Beer City USA national poll, and which in recent years has also garnered national attention for its three-week-long, citywide ArtPrize contest, a new and positive mindset toward things aesthetic has become apparent, and it is sweeping up jazz into the mix. Bravo for those restaurant owners who see value in live jazz and are choosing to support it by giving it a venue in their establishments.    

Playing Jazz on the Local Level

Last night I spent an enjoyable evening playing in the orchestra pit for a production of the stage musical, "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," in Hastings, Michigan. Tonight I'll be there again, and tomorrow night. The cast is all high school kids, and they do a great job. My buddy, Ed Englerth, is sitting in on guitar, and Mark Ramsey on keyboards serves as musical director and does by far the bulk of the actual playing. My job is to keep my ears open and provide improvised sax work wherever it seemed appropriate. If that sounds like a rather loose approach, it is. But the informality and spontaneity are a good part of the fun for me. You see, we're not talking some high-pressure effort here that has involved weeks of practice (my preparation consisted of attending the dress rehearsal, then walking in last night and playing the gig). This is a local, grassroots production--which is by no means to minimize the talent, just to recognize a difference in approach that I really enjoy. That's what's nice about local efforts: they have an irreplaceable, homespun feel; they are high in entertainment value; they are often very well done; and they tap into and foster the gifts that are right at hand. Some surprisingly bright stars may be shining far from the Big City in a small town near you. This has been my first time playing with Mark Ramsey, and I'm impressed by his level of professionalism. Hastings, the capital of Barry County, Michigan,  is a small town blessed, as is many a small town, with a number of good musicians. My friend Ed Englerth, for instance, is an absolutely brilliant songwriter. Trumpet man and vocalist Joe LaJoye, the town's retired band director, is the driving force for jazz in the community and the spearhead of its annual jazz festival. And Mark is the first keyboard player I've encountered in the area who demonstrates a well-rounded command of his instrument, one that shows a grasp of many idioms ranging from jazz to show tunes to classical and more. And he's a very nice guy to boot. No attitude, just a humble spirit and a love for what he's doing, qualities that make him a joy to work with. As for the cast of the show, these kids are clearly having a good time. They're taking their roles as actors seriously, and they're having fun doing so. My point is, living in a small town doesn't necessarily mean lack of opportunity for a jazz musician. Depending on the community, you may delightfully surprised at what you find. Hastings is fifteen miles down the road from where I live in the cow town of Caledonia. My home town being an outlier of Grand Rapids, I have access to a broader music scene that I can tap into. When it comes to playing jazz, some of the musicians I play with reside in Grand Rapids, but others, like me, live farther out--far enough to enjoy the countryside, yet close enough to be a vital part of the West Michigan music scene. If you work hard at your instrument, and if personal growth as a musician is its own reward for you, then sooner or later you'll connect with other capable players. You'll make music. You may not make a living at it, but you'll find opportunities to share your talent with appreciative ears.