Close your eyes and listen. You could be in any jazz room in New York City. Open your eyes, take a look around, and you may still be fooled, for the venue has the ambiance of a sophisticated Big Apple jazz club. But this isn't New York, it's Miami Beach. And what you're listening to isn't just jazz, which some severely misinformed people associate with John Tesh and Kenny G. This is hard bop, or what Lincoln Road's Van Dyke Cafe bills as the Hard Bop Special. And special it is.
Six musicians, three sets. The only band in town playing hard bop on a regular basis. The idea came from Don Wilner, the distinguished bassist, bandleader, and sideman who, as the Cafe's musical director since early 1995, has pretty much been given free rein to program anything he wants, seven nights a week. "I thought about it in June, and I put the band down for two nights to see how it went," Wilner says. "The first night we played, it went great. After that I began to realize it was a good idea to do more."
So Wilner soon increased the hard-bop gigs to three Thursdays a month and the occasional weekend. His instinct to use more musicians than the club's usual duo or trio was on target. "The music usually involves two or three horns, and I wanted to start using more horns because I think that's a sign of a real good jazz club," he explains. "Basically our nights have been dominated by piano trios with a singer or one horn. I wanted that sound of horns playing in harmony. It just has more impact. It's a typical sound you would associate with a jazz club."
The high level of musicianship at the Van Dyke definitely puts it in the league of some of the best jazz clubs in the country, but it does differ in one respect: the cover charge. For a mere three dollars on Thursday and six on the weekend (though that amount is soon going to rise slightly), audience members can spend three hours listening to some of Miami's most outstanding players.
The band is composed of Wilner himself on upright bass and five other first-rate musicians with whom he has worked on and off for many years: drummer James Martin and pianist Mark Marineau (on other nights they perform as the Don Wilner Trio); Pete Minger, a former soloist with the Count Basie Orchestra, on trumpet; and Dave Hubbard, who has performed with cats such as Ray Charles and George Benson, on tenor saxophone. Alto saxophonist by night and bailiff during the day Jesse Jones, Jr., who last year released the well-received CD Soul Serenade on the Berkeley, California-based jazz label Fantasy Records, rounds out the sextet.
Their sound is expectedly jazzy and surprisingly pleasant. Make no mistake, the "bop" in hard bop is not that of the bebop variety. That style of music -- relentless, bombastic, to some inscrutable -- marked a boundary-stretching moment in jazz history during the Forties when it seemed there was nowhere else to go but crazy. Bebop flourished in the 52nd Street nightclubs of New York City, a major center of musical experimentation. It summons images of trumpet virtuoso Dizzy Gillespie and alto sax whiz Charlie Parker honking and blowing, improvising over frenetic chord changes, transforming and sometimes transcending melody by twisting, turning, and expanding. The playing was complicated and technically impressive, yet unlistenable for many; the style eventually prompted a more accessible alternative -- hard bop.
"Bebop was sort of scientific and theoretical music," says Wilner, "and hard bop was a reaction to that. Although it contains elements of bebop, it also has other things that make it easy to tap your foot to or sing along with. I've been finding out that a lot of people are afraid the music is going to be like bebop -- loud and obnoxious. But hard bop is really bebop taken not a step further, but a step to the side."
Hence the sound -- bold, boisterous, a smoothing-out of its rough-edged predecessor blended with a smidgen of blues and a splash of gospel. The rhythm section does more than complacently keep the beat: It pounds out syncopated three- and four-beat patterns, often lasting several measures, weaving a musical tapestry on which soloists can improvise melodies.
At the height of its popularity in the mid- to late Fifties, hard bop was played most successfully by drummer Art Blakey and his Jazz Messengers, and by the likes of alto saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderley, drummer Max Roach, and trumpeters Lee Morgan, Clifford Brown, and Miles Davis. That was mainly on the East Coast; on the West Coast cool jazz (think Dave Brubeck's "Take Five") prevailed. Hard bop faded in the early Seventies as musicians grew bolder and drifted into free jazz, post-bop, and fusion, and incorporated diverse influences such as rock and funk.
Fifty years after it first blared onto the scene, though, hard bop sounds as fresh as ever. On a recent night in the crowded upstairs room at the Van Dyke, the six-piece finds itself playing to a rare audience -- a silent one. Usually patrons are more interested in listening to their conversations than to the music. But not this night. Lounging on love seats or sitting in wicker chairs, listeners of all ages are captivated during the first of three hourlong sets. Overhead fans twirl slowly in the ceiling's octagonal insets. The band breaks into the Duke Pearson number "Jeannine." At the ivories, Marineau, in the spare style of the great Bill Evans, tinkles gently. Wilner sits on a bar stool and plucks away at his bass, sweat rolling down his forehead. Minger blows a pure and clean melody on his trumpet. Toes tap on the oriental rugs, heads bob up and down, hands slap thighs. The performers interact instinctively; when you're a pro, you're a pro, and they're all you'll hear at the Van Dyke, dig?
"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."
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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.