"We aren't a place [for musicians] to learn. We use just the very best guys," Wilner explains. "We aren't interested in beginners or amateurs. This is not a jam session. A lot of people come here and are disappointed they can't sit in. Once upon a time in jazz, people would learn by sitting in at places, but that doesn't happen much any more. I'm not sure why, but maybe it's because so many people sat in that the music sounded like crap and people ended up going to a different restaurant where they could eat in peace. People get put off by that. If the music is bad, it's like a root canal."
Listeners' mouths may be agape, but there is no painful dental work going on here. Abruptly the tune slows down and Minger is left alone by his horn-playing brethren to front a very mellow version of the Haggart-Burke standard "What's New?" He improvises smoothly, his gentle tone lulls the audience into a relaxed state, a mirror of his own temperament.
"Being able to play in a group with good musicians and being able to play music you always dreamed of playing is the best part about this," Minger exclaims. "We all have pretty much the same interests and we feed off each other. We entertain each other. It's great to play music of that era, and we have good chemistry."
Electricity is evident when Jones and Hubbard step back onstage and the band begins the complex Charles Mingus tune "Fables of Faubus." The song, long and drawn out, flows seamlessly. Horn parts are plaintive, wailing, grim. Each musician takes a solo. Then saxophonist Jones stops blowing, puts his horn aside, and begins to sing. He calls, the band responds. After that the combo embarks on Miles Davis's "Freddy Freeloader," which sounds almost identical to the version from his 1959 classic, Kind of Blue.
"Basically we are playing the arrangements you'd hear on records, which have become pretty standard," Wilner says. "But there's plenty of improvising. One of the things that's nice about this band is that when one horn player is improvising, the other two guys are making up a background behind him. That's kind of a diversion from a strict hard-bop thing. We do a lot more riffing than the hard boppers did."
Although the style may not be unadulterated hard bop, the songs played at the Van Dyke still don't bear comparison to the music contemporary-jazz radio stations bombard their listeners with today. "Everybody is playing that Kmart jazz these days," says Jones, "but the stuff that we do is old school; it's very satisfying. When I play my horn I'm conversing. I'm telling people something. The horn is an extension of my body, my mind, and my soul, and with it I'm telling people all about me. I view it as a spiritual thing; it goes from me to them. When I see people are moving, grooving, and tapping their foot, the connection is made."
For Wilner the bond with the audience is important, but their musical comprehension is also essential. "I want everybody to have a good time," he says. "I want them to enjoy jazz. A lot of times jazz is over everybody's heads, and it's very easy for musicians to get over people's heads. People can be sitting there and have absolutely no idea what's going on. We're trying to find a nice balance between what's good music and what people can deal with, what they can understand."
The Hard Bop Special takes place three Thursdays a month and, among other occasional weekends, Friday and Saturday, August 28 and 29, at Van Dyke Cafe, 846 Lincoln Rd, Miami Beach. Showtimes are 10:00 p.m., 11:30 p.m., and 1:00 a.m. Cover charge is $6. Call 305-534-3600.