Where's the Jazz, Man?

So ... the question lurks: Where has South Florida jazz gone? The memories of lounge evenings are faint at best; the glory of onstage improvisation and legend-shaping has fizzled into the pages of history under the category of "How days once were."

For those who think that jazz was a phenomenon restricted to Chicago or New York City, here's a heads up. From the late Sixties through the mid-Eighties, South Florida was the kind of place that awoke goggle-eyed from stiff drinks and glorious, honest performances. Miami had it, and for the players, the money was there. A musician could make a living gigging here three to five nights a week. Of course, a few parameters existed that allowed for such circumstances: crowds, venues, and talent.

Jazz has always been the slightly subversive thinking man's music. It gets sought out, chanced upon by accident, or just plain born into. In its heyday, Miami Beach was chock full of swinging hotels and their respective watering holes. Pedestrians would simply walk into hotel bars and nightclubs without knowing what was going on and still be receptive to the sight of a band sweating it up. But the crowd the Beach attracts nowadays is geared toward a "party" mentality. The DJ and dance music of clubland has replaced the muted horn and brushed snares of yore. Even tourists have followed suit -- face it, today's Beach is sold as a 24-hour Ibiza-styled orgy.

The deterioration of the actual jazz-loving crowd may be a case of mortality. The young kids favor the new Miami Beach. Rat Pack cool is almost exclusively a retro thing and only the hippest of the hip get it.

In spite of the DJ/dance music takeover, Tobacco Road continues to operate with a weekly offering of jazz and blues because it has always drawn a fiercely loyal crowd. Another place that can offer a similar claim is the Van Dyke Café. Not as old as the Road, the Van Dyke sustains a weekly jazz/blues format because Don Wilner, an old-school South Florida jazzman, books the talent. His experience as a session and headlining musician means he's connected and able to woo out-of-town performers to play at his venue. Bougainvillea's in South Miami has at least one night a week for jazz; JohnMartin's Restaurant in Coral Gables dishes it out on Wednesday evenings; and Churchill's in Little Haiti moderates an open mike on Mondays for jazz and spoken-word performances. None of them has reached the thriving point yet.

Cool Beans Café was a watering hole for me and my buddies back in 1995. The coffee shop was in a nondescript strip mall in North Miami. Cool Beans had the kind of cool that made you want to sit around for hours smoking cigarettes and talking bunk with friends and strangers alike. The house band would start the evening with blues standards and soft oldies and finish with Mingus/Rollins-styled jams. Sometimes those guys played to me and my friends alone in that room. Sometimes there would be a couple of others, usually elderly folk, but most of the time about a dozen people showed up throughout the night. You could tell it wasn't going to last very long. By the summer of 1996 it was gone.

From a venue's standpoint it's cheaper to pay one person and provide a mixing booth to spin records in than pay an entire band and have to set up a stage for them to play on. The number of personnel in a jazz group can range from a trio to a big band surpassing ten members. That's a lot of mouths for an employer to feed. In clubland the DJ option is a quick fix. Musician Carl Ferrari, who plays with local jazz/experimental band Swivel Stick, notes, "The empowerment of the DJ with new sound technologies has made it easier for a venue to book such an act and thus eradicate the need for a live band." Sure, as long as the people still get their music, right?

Local player Frank Kennedy has witnessed the rise and fall of the scene. "Jazz as a steady job has become nonexistent," says the drummer. "My last steady gig was ten years ago with Bob Grabowski and Eddie Stack at the Hyatt Regency in Coral Gables." Prior to that, he remembers, he and other local jazz musicians would start out with a regular cocktail-hour jam session at the Fontainebleau that ran from 4:00 to 7:00 p.m., often going on to play at two or more clubs in the same evening.

Big names would come through town, too: Dizzy Gillespie, Gato Barbieri, Alfredo "Chocolat" Armenteros. Kennedy even backed Bobby McFerrin at a gig before the latter hit with "Don't Worry, Be Happy." The late, great Jaco Pastorius hailed from Fort Lauderdale and often performed here during his short career. But another current resident, world-renowned trumpet player Arturo Sandoval, maintains a touring schedule that keeps him out of South Florida around 90 percent of the time. His few local gigs this year have been with the FIU Jazz Ensemble at Florida International University, where he is an artist-in-residence. (The next performance is scheduled for the school's music festival on October 25.)

With both FIU and the University of Miami offering classes in jazz music, there's still plenty of talent being generated, including players like Melton Mustafa (who is working on a new album) and his brother, Jesse Jones, Jr. (whose band recently finished a residency at Pescado's in Coral Gables). Wilner performs weekly with his own Brazilian-influenced jazz squad and special guests on Sunday nights at the Van Dyke. Newer acts like Swivel Stick and Out of the Anonymous explore the jazz sound in new and innovative ways. The number of people who opt to stay here, however, is small; most usually ship out to other cities and/or continents. "Innovative music and musicians have died down in this area," says Henry Rajan, bassist for Out of the Anonymous. "The sense of community has disappeared and even with the small pockets of support that still exist, it's not enough to realistically maintain a [venue] for it."

Overall the jazz scene in South Florida has shrunk. It operates at a below-radar level. Obviously with increased crowd support for a venue, which would in turn motivate musicians, local jazz could be saved. There will never again be 20 or 30 clubs/bars operating in the genre simultaneously. But it would be a real pity to find our proud jazz history relegated to a blurb in the "Art Deco" sidebar in a travel guide. Or even worse, a blotchy coelacanth waiting patiently to be accidentally discovered by a new generation.

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Abel Folgar