Redefining the concept of jazz trios: piano with two tenor saxes.
Redefining the concept of jazz venues: a health-food store/restaurant.
Of course there's an explanation for this unlikely pairing A an oft-neglected art form showcased in a setting that might seem more appropriate for some postpsychedelic, postelectric, return-to-the-earth musical accompaniment to the brown rice and memories of San Francisco in the Summer of Love days. One of the sax players happens to co-own the place.
And showcase he does: local artists like pianist Eddie Higgins and trumpet player Melton Mustafa, who recently traveled to Manhattan's Village Vanguard for some out-of-town gigging. The New Yorker recently called the Village Vanguard the most famous jazz club in the world, and the exalted Big Apple wordsmiths are probably right. At any rate, it's not the kind of spot jazz-starved aficionados in South Florida are likely to find around here. Musicians either -- that's why many of them yearn for a trip north.
The New York-South Florida jazz connection has resulted from the labors of Bread of Life restaurant and store co-owner Richie Gerber, who grew up in Brooklyn. Just as Louis Armstrong used to hang out on sidewalks in front of clubs in New Orleans to hear his idol King Oliver, Gerber, 45, would stand watch outside New York City nightclubs in the Fifties and early Sixties hoping to hear, and get a chance to exchange a few words with, idols such as Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis. Gerber was too young to catch the great Charlie Parker before Parker's untimely death, but Bird's legacy lives on in Gerber's music. Although Gerber prefers tenor to alto, he says, "I have three favorite musicians: Charlie Parker, Charlie Parker, and Charlie Parker."
On a recent evening, with the winter crowd (and several of his musical cohorts) gone in the annual exodus from the steamy season of South Florida, Gerber teamed with fellow tenor-saxman Billy Ross and pianist Mike Gerber (no relation) to put forth some mellow (in the best sense of the word) sounds. In fact, pianist Gerber displayed one riff that was absolutely Monk-like, so simple and complex at the same time, so damned spontaneous-sounding, that I just sat there hoping the restaurant patrons munching on their brown rice and salmon steaks appreciated what they were hearing. Mike Gerber was also contributing voice accompaniment/mumbling/scatting that was reminiscent of jazz pianist Keith Jarrett or vibraphonist Lionel Hampton. Then he hit the aforementioned Monkian run and I nearly floated away.
Considering the location -- near Ford and Cadillac dealerships on Federal Highway in Fort Lauderdale -- the ambiance at the Bread of Life provides a welcome contrast. With pedestrians strolling the arcade of the strip shopping center on Federal just south of Oakland Park Boulevard (even in a typically South Florida summer drizzle), stopping just outside the Bread of Life to catch the sounds, you get the feeling that you're somewhere else. If the music hits you right, you might even think Paris. (The restaurant serves alcoholic drinks inside and out front at its sidewalk cafe, adding to the Parisian flavor, but, in keeping with the health-food ethos, there is no smoking of anything allowed.)
When Gerber the pianist hit that groove and Gerber the saxman got in some bluesy licks and Ross charged hard along with them, going after those proverbial high notes, I almost felt as if I had left Paris and suddenly found myself back at the Village Vanguard, or perhaps San Francisco's Keystone Korner, where I saw Charles Mingus, George Benson, Stanley Turrentine.
Hey! This wasn't South Florida in the drippy, sticky summertime. This was somewhere else. This was someplace definitely uptown. This was jazz. "This sure beats a lot of the clubs I've played in South Florida," Mike Gerber told me between sets. "Places where you get $50 a night and grief from the drunks in the crowd. Richie appreciates jazz and jazz musicians -- there's no doubt about it."
He also gives them one hell of a meal to go with their paycheck.
"Look how skinny these two guys are," Richie Gerber says, laughing, pointing at Mike Gerber and Billy Ross. "They look like jazz musicians! But they're getting a good meal tonight for sure."
Richie Gerber has been playing saxophone since the seventh grade. While in junior high school he was selected for an "all-city" band in New York. After working as an organic farmer in Maine ("You know, it was the Sixties, long hair and all that") and as a schoolteacher in New York and South Florida -- where he taught English to Marielitos A Gerber opened the original Bread of Life store and restaurant in Wilton Manors with his wife, Julie, in 1981. He moved to his current location three years ago, and has been using the restaurant to showcase jazz for the past year.
He says he has big plans for next season. "I want to do a 'Live from the Bread of Life,' album," Gerber says. "You know, have all kinds of people playing and singing A Eddie Higgins, Meredith d'Ambrosio, Lou Colombo, Melton Mustafa, Ira Sullivan.... That's what I've got planned for winter. In the meantime, I plan to have live music all through the summer. We're here to stay." And if anyone could back up this assertion, it's the tenor man who has successfully mixed bean sprouts and Bird in a healthy and tuneful combination.