Tampa Bay’s current generation of jazz artists are following his lead
One artist Tampa Bay jazz fans hear frequently on WUSF 98.7-FM’s late night jazz lineup is Nate Najara guy who probably never once thought about whether or not he would ever be on the radio.
“As soon as I could drive, I would go everywhere with my guitar, and I would go everywhere a band was playing, and ask if I could sit down,” Najar, 37, told CL. He always managed to find a gig. One such club was the since-demolished C Note on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, where Najar would sneak in and listen to Suzette Jennings (Najar said there was now a regional bank there). A Detroit pianist, Jerry Libby, was eventually hired there, and he hired Najar to play five nights a week for three years.
“I learned so much just by looking at his left hand,” Najar said. Standards and true tunes were absorbed, and soon Najar found himself playing guitar for the late and legendary St. Petersburg trombonist. Buster Cooper.
“Buster was really nice, he let anyone sit down, so everyone and their brother cut their teeth sitting with Buster,” he added. For three years, however, Najar spent every Friday and Saturday playing with Cooper in the courtyard of the long-demolished downtown St. Petersburg restaurant The Garden; Najar learned a lot of melodies and he learned to hold a bandstand. From then on, Najar always found a gig, formed bands and played anywhere. He chased opportunities and never waited for the phone to ring; he never sat and trained.
“I never thought of it in terms of ‘Oh, I have to work,'” Najar said. “It was just, ‘I have to play guitar…and I’ll play it anywhere.'”
For many of Tampa Bay’s brightest jazz talents, that urge to play is a constant. James Suggestions — who saw his first LP, you gonna hear about me, national event – caught the virus after his family snuck him backstage at a Wynton Marsalis concert. The then 29-year-old trumpet icon gave 10-year-old Suggs a short private lesson.
“It transformed me. After that concert, I was determined to become a jazz trumpeter,” Suggs told CL in a March interview.
For others, like the pianist John O’Learyimpulses led to writing a neuroscience scrapbook. O’Leary’s gang, La Luchareleased an equally offbeat album, driven by Moog Sub Phatty, Pa’Lanteafter. Hector Mayor expresses it in his stripped-down Latin jazz and folk. Omari Dillard does it with his electric violin. BK Jackson, a breakout smooth jazz saxophonist, turned his own desire to play into a long stint in Prince’s band and his current role in Trombone Shorty’s ensemble. A recent Florida State graduate and saxophonist named Marlon Boone did its best to break into a precarious smooth jazz market without any radio support.
The list of people who play jazz in Tampa Bay is unsurprisingly long. A Creative Loafing Tampa survey of just 20 local jazz musicians, promoters and supporters yielded the names of nearly 300 people (which we will compile online) who we should have considered speaking to for this issue.
Some of these artists even earn four Grammy nominations for a single album. You just have to ask chuck owen – professor of jazz studies at the University of South Florida and director of the school’s Center for Jazz Composition – including the 2017 album with his band, Jazz Surge, has been nominated four times (Best recording by a major jazz ensemble, best instrumental composition, best arrangement, instrumental or a cappella and best album by a major jazz ensemble).
The seven-track suite, titled whispers on the wind, was powered by a 19-piece big band, full orchestra, dulcimer and even accordion, all of whom performed alongside horns (like that of Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker) and harmonica by Grégoire Maret . Produced by longtime Tampeño Tom Morris, the result was an untraditional, expansive and sublime recording inspired by the American heart and accented by composer Sara Caswell, whose violin shone for nearly 12 minutes. Whispers highlight “I can’t remember why”.
And while artists like Owen push the sound of jazz to the brink (Florida Bjorkestra might even fall into this genre category), others go back in time.
“For our band, we just wanted to be as authentic as possible with the Brazilian sound,” David Manson, trombone player for O Som Do Jazz, told CL. His band – which includes Rio De Janeiro expat Andrea Moraes on vocals – has just released their new album, Go! “We’re trying to capture that moment when Brazilian musicians kind of started improvising with a certain jazz influence.”
The 11 pieces of Dick Rumore Jazz Cellar Orchestra is also still there to remind longtime Bay Area jazz of a time when historic Ybor City could be home to a veritable underground jazz venue. The group can primarily be seen as part of Jim Burge’s offerings at the Carrollwood Cultural Center since the cellar is now one of several heavily guarded rooms that make up the Church of Scientology’s Ybor Square property (which includes the office of CL ; yes, Xenu is our owner ).
And speaking of Cigar City’s old jazz clubs, the Beaten bandwho played at the since-closed Ybor City Jazz House, is now doing his Brandon thing at the rebranded Jazz House Supper Club.
Yet another artist channeling another era of jazz is singer-songwriter Gloria Westwho was in country attire before turning to jazz in 2014. Today, his band Gloria West and the Gents sometimes give pop songs a touch of old jazz, but mostly deals with swing and hard-core old jazz 20s, 30s and 40s.
“If I’m doing stuff from the 50s and 60s, I’ll always do it with an older feel,” West told CL when asked about his band’s sound. Louis Armstrong, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars, and even Willy Wonka and Chocolate Factory stuff are all worked in sets West works at places like Zydeco Brew Werks in Ybor City.
Like the matriarch of the Tampa Bay jazz scene, Kitty Daniels, West loves the feel of the music she plays and the smiles she creates in audiences. At some point in her career, people in West tried to recruit her for corporate groups. She refused.
“I was like, ‘No, I want to do jazz.’ I just knew it inside of me, and it just felt like home,” she said. “The more I learned, the more comfortable I felt. It’s just such a happy feeling.
And if you need a break from the warm, fuzzy thrills, just go find a gig where Al Di Meola percussionist Gumbi Ortiz is in the lineup. The 64-year-old virtuoso doesn’t consider himself a jazz musician, but he was one of the first to perform at Clearwater Jazz Holiday four decades ago. The poor kid from the Bronx who talks fast and without bullshit plays like a man on fire and often finds himself surrounded by the best jazz musicians in the area. Last week he played an album release party for singer Bryan J Hughes, who managed to get an absolutely insane ensemble – including the aforementioned Suggs and Najar, Ron and Dave Reinhardt, Mike Gibilisco, Mike Scaglione, Whitney James and Patrick Bettison – on the Hideaway Café stage.
“I don’t see myself as a gender player. I’m not a jazz player, or a conga player, or a latin player, or a funk player. I just see myself as a drummer,” Ortiz told CL. He acknowledged that he had shared stages with some of the greats (including Nat Adderley, among many others) and that he was there with the singer Fred Johnson during some of the best days of the Tampa Bay jazz scene, but he insists he shouldn’t be mentioned when we talk about people keeping jazz culture alive.
“I’m not that guy. I want to have a good time and I want the audience to have a good time,” Ortiz added. Like many performers in this issue, he just wants to be close to what he loves the most. “I want to play my instrument, and I’m lucky enough to play it well on a good night.”
And looking at the current state of the Tampa Bay jazz scene, perhaps it’s Ortiz’s aversion to taking the idea of jazz so seriously that we should focus on.
Since its inception, jazz has been a malleable art of. It was born in America, but has gone global since its inception. In some parts of the world, the word “jazz” is more sacred than in the United States. Bands like Snarky Puppy bring a new and expansive (if not noodle) approach to the genre while others like Kamasi Washington remind us (as J Dilla did, or as Flying Lotus does) that the best jazz – and the music in general – is made by brave individuals who possess an uncanny devotion to their instruments and the means to follow their unruly muse wherever she leads them. As it evolves, jazz will undoubtedly be carried by its most influential actors but also by conceptualists who will constantly redraw the lines.
What role Tampa Bay plays in all of this remains to be seen, but the scene has always been alive and a bumper new crop of exceptional young talent is at the forefront of this journey.
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