Gil's Café is a quaint Miami Beach locale with sidewalk seating, a bar area, and a small dining room that caters to any form of diner. It serves an eclectic treatment of Brazilian favorites like rodizio and picanha steak. Add a carafe of caipirinhas to the dimmed lights and the mood is set for some hot jams. But on Thursdays, it attracts another type of client for Jazz at Gil's, a night set aside to relax through bacchanal and auditory means that's been going strong for a little over two months now.
Kimberly Chmura is running around the café, making sure everyone's taken care of and is enjoying themselves. Her Italian stock is evident in the quality of her hospitality: She asks questions concerning her patrons' needs and attends to them with an obsessive-compulsive flair for detail. Anyone who observes her will tell you that she is stressing herself out unnecessarily. But that's her job as a music promoter.
"Everybody had been really appreciative of the music and the ambiance. See that gentleman there?" she says, pointing to a man sitting at the bar. "He's a pilot and he's been in here every Thursday for the last four weeks." Chmura smiles at what is obviously tangible proof that her hard work is paying off. Out-of-town people keep coming back and each week there are fewer and fewer seats available.
By encouraging a diverse network of players, from seasoned veterans to young and promising local talent, to get onstage, Chmura and her music director, Mike Wood, ensure a good mix of sensibilities behind the instruments. An assortment of musicians is always scheduled to perform, but people in the audience can usually participate at the end of the set. There's no cover charge and the scheduled musicians are paid from bar sales. She knows that it will take dedication to ensure the longevity of the event, but she's willing to hang in there for her musicians and friends.
"If anything, more than my love for the music and the musicians, I want to make it more accessible," Chmura says. "I want to bring the local jazz scene close to where it used to be."
I probably should have expected that when I wrote about the waning jazz scene in South Florida a few issues ago ("Where's the Jazz, Man?" September 18), the hipsters would emerge out of the woodwork to call me on my opinion. In that piece I mentioned a few places that were showcasing the format. I'm happy to report that they are all still going strong. Recently the Bougainvillea Tavern in South Miami had a swinging three-piece combo playing into the wee Sunday-morning hours as part of their Saturday-night showcase. Most of the crowd consisted of affluent college students and young, fresh-faced professionals. Some appeared caught up in their respective conversations, but a few were bopping along to the music.
Back at Gil's Café, Mike Wood alternates between waiting tables and playing the bass guitar onstage. An unassuming gentleman with a slight British accent, he also moderates Churchill Pub's Miami Jazz Jam, where people are invited to contribute to a gestalt jam session. "The Monday nights at Churchill's have been going well," he says. "The pub's been there for so long, with an outstanding, loyal clientele that has been very supportive to us."
Performing at Gil's tonight are the lovely Philly from Philly and her Old School Cats and the enigmatic Ben at the keys. Philly and her Old School Cats have a residency at the 3 Fingers Liquors & Lounge on Friday nights. Ben is a session man at Miami Jazz Jam.
You get the feeling that for some of these musicians it's less about finding good gigs than creating a sense of family. Chmura says that on many nights she stays up at home cooking for them. "If for whatever reason the bar is slow and I can't pay them that much, I make sure that at the very least they get a good meal from me," she says. For any local movement to exist and thrive, it must be close-knit. This does not mean that everyone's gonna get along and motivate each other like hyperactive cheerleaders, but that they will motivate and inspire each other to start their own events, and, they hope, attract a following.
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Also part of the movement is the Van Dyke Café, which boasts a seven-day schedule of hot evening jazz. Pescado in the Village of Merrick Park boasts a wine-tasting event on Wednesdays that's complemented by live sounds courtesy of local guys like Melton Mustafa. On Wednesdays you'll also find jazz being played at JohnMartin's Irish Pub and Restaurant, which is a stone's throw away in Coral Gables; and Lenny Steinberg & Miami Jazz at Rock & Feller's in Brickell. There are also a few places on the Beach, like Café Cardoso and Jade, that set aside a night or two.
Southfloridajazz.org is a good Website to check out in order to stay up to date on Broward and Miami-Dade concerts and jazz-related events. It offers profiles on resident musicians as well as links to educational sites and job opportunities. The long-running and self-proclaimed (with good reason) only 24-hour jazz radio station in Miami, WDNA-FM 88.9, has a Website (www.wdna.org) that features a calendar listing of events as well as a programming schedule and other general information.
On the education front, many students praise the music departments at Florida International University and the University of Miami. Thor Thorvaldsson of the Thor Experiment is a University of Miami student from Iceland who came to study jazz. He says that UM's music program is well known around the world and came highly recommended by other Icelandic college students.
Thor's a blond kid of average build who is wailing on the drums with expressive precision one Saturday afternoon at Borders in Kendall. At 23 years old, he's not jaded enough to get annoyed by a latte-sipping crowd who isn't paying attention to him or the rest of his band. He expresses a little disappointment over the Miami scene but is energetic about his campus experiences and his love for a musical genre that has brought him here from halfway across the world and three climates over. "I could never stop what I'm doing, the music that I am playing, and do something else," he says optimistically. "Even if I know that I will have a hard life, this is all I want to do."