April 11, 2013

Jazz taking root in Charlotte

When Lonnie Davis moved to Charlotte from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, she and her husband - both jazz musicians - noticed a void.

When Lonnie Davis moved to Charlotte from New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina in 2006, she and her husband – both jazz musicians – noticed a void.

“(In) New Orleans, jazz is coming out of windows and up, basically, from the ground. Charlotte just didn’t have that culture for jazz, so that any night of the week you could hear some great jazz – and it still doesn’t exist to that degree,” recalls Davis, who founded the Jazz Arts Initiative in 2009.

During the early ’90s, Charlotte was richer in jazz. The Jazz Café served that niche for a short time in the ’00s, but there have been long periods when jazz was relegated to national artists touring through, or the long-running annual Sunset Jazz Festival in September. But lately, jazz of all sorts seems to be taking a stronger hold on Charlotte.

The Charlotte Jazz Fest, which takes place in June, expanded to two days and is in its fourth year. The monthly Jazz at the Bechtler Series is often packed. In fall 2011, the Swing Jazz Series brought big band music to McGlohon Theatre. And, of course, there’s Bill Hanna’s Jazz Jam at the Double Door Inn nearly every Tuesday night.

On a recent Sunday, jazz fans had to decide between shows featuring crooner Diana Krall or trumpeter Hugh Masekela. Even Label (the NC Music Factory dance club) recently got in on the action, hosting national contemporary jazz artists for its Tuesday Night Jazz series.

This week, Blumenthal Performing Arts introduces one of two new monthly jazz series that will take place in the intimate Stage Door Theater: The Jazz Room, which features regional musicians taking on classic jazz artists, kicks off there Tuesday with a tribute to Bill Evans. Then on May 26, Stage Door will introduce The Clef Club, a monthly jazz series; the first concert features Cyrus Chestnut.

The idea for Clef Club stemmed from band leader John Brown’s experience playing the Lincoln Center and Kennedy Center.

“Those venues have smaller theaters where they do jazz,” explains promoter Tammy Greene. “We thought, ‘Let’s take Stage Door and turn it into a jazz club once a month.’ ”

Her friend Lonnie Davis was thinking the same thing. Both bring something different to the table, though. By focusing on a new artist each month (Evans for April, Miles Davis in May), Davis wants to use The Jazz Room as a way to not only celebrate the classics, but to introduce them to audiences who aren’t necessarily hardcore jazz lovers.

Davis wanted to make the events as accessible as possible. With a 6 p.m. start time and the location, it’s easy for folks working uptown to drop in before heading home.

Greene’s concept isn’t as specific. “I want to do traditional jazz, but there are some great modern jazz artists like the Esperanza Spaldings of the world,” she says of booking riskier fare.

Charles Whitfield, a Greensboro native and music industry veteran who partners with Greene on the Charlotte Jazz Fest, says jazz has certainly been on the rise since he returned to the area from L.A. in 2008. But he says there’s still work to be done.

“The one thing I would love to see is a jazz club in uptown,” says Whitfield. “Maybe that’s something we’ll see in the next three to five years.”

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