THE STATE OF JAZZ IN THE FORT
By Ken Shimamoto
These days, the opportunities to hear live jazz in Fort Worth are more plentiful than they’ve been in quite a few seasons. Back in the ‘80s, world-class jazzers like Cowtown native Ornette Coleman’s Prime Time and his fellow I.M. Terrell High School alum Ronald Shannon Jackson’s Decoding Society were frequent and regular visitors to Caravan of Dreams. Sadly, that venue, with its magnificent sound system and unobstructed sightlines, went the way of all flesh when The Restaurant Whose Name I Shall Not Speak co-opted its real estate following the tornado of March Y2K. By that time, the only outlets for live jazz in this city were piano wizard Johnny Case’s nightly sets at Sardines Ristorante Italiano and the Sunday night jazz jams that saxophonist Michael Pellecchia hosted at Tad Gaither’s now-defunct Black Dog Tavern.
When the Black Dog closed its doors for the last time in January 2007, drummer Dave Karnes (who’d assumed leadership of the Black Dog jazz jam when Pellecchia decamped for New England) moved across West 7th Street to Wreck Room impresario Brian Forella’s new spot, 6th Street Live. With better promotion, Karnes (whose cohorts in crime typically include bassist Drew Phelps, guitarist Paul Metzger, and multi-instrumentalist Joey Carter, along with various sit-ins and special guests) has been doing good business in his new venue. Over at Sardines, Case (who now goes by the “Muslimized” handle Jhon Kahsen) has added bi-monthly “avant-garde evenings” and special events including tributes to local lights Dewey Redman and Rachella Parks to the jazz menu.
One of the most stellar events at Sardines this year was a performance by saxophonist Dave Williams’ Ornette Coleman repertory band Ornettology (with multi-instrumentalist Chris White on trumpet and flute and the fiery rhythm section from Flipside Trio – Fort Worth Symphony bassist Paul Unger and drummer Dennis Durick). Williams is also part of guitarist Sam Walker’s Thelonious Monk repertory project Thelonious, which has performed to sold-out houses at Gracey Tune and Eddie Dunlap’s Arts Fifth Avenue – a venue that also hosts an annual Django Reinhardt festival. Both of those bands, and a Miles Davis tribute helmed by bassist Unger, have performed at the Jazz By the Boulevard Festival, an annual September event that’s done much to raise the profile of jazz in Cowtown.
Kahsen, in particular, has been wary of taking a strictly repertory approach in his special events planning, lest folks get the impression that jazz is a purely historical music, and Sardines recently hosted a performance of original compositions by pianist Daymond Callahan and South African drummer Danny Tcheco. Elsewhere, the Fifth Avenue Jazz Collective, a group that includes Williams, Carter, Dunlap, trumpeter Leonard Belota, trombonist Pat Brown, and bassist Kyp Green, has performed all-original programs at Arts Fifth Avenue.
But there’s more. Unger and Carter have already booked dates at the Scat Jazz Lounge (December 8th and 20th, respectively), an unfortunately named but promising new room that opens in Sundance Square on December 6th. The lounge is the brainchild of Dallas-based vocalist Ricki Derek, and it looks as though the emphasis there will be on vocal jazz and Sinatra-esque “cool.” (Any visitor to the weekly sessions at 6th Street can tell you that singers always get the biggest response. They can also tell you that there aren’t as many good jazz singers as there are, say, saxophonists. My fave: Ron the train man.) Swingmeister-turned-soundtrack composer Johnny Reno will be there December 14th.
It isn’t just the clubs, either; now the restaurants are getting into the act, too. Trumpeter Brian Sharp’s group Saint Frinatra has been holding forth on Thursday nights at Chef Tim Love’s “modern steakhouse” Duce on Camp Bowie Boulevard. A few blocks east on that same strip, Chef Keith Hicks’ Ovation offers live music an incredible seven nights a week, with the emphasis on blues and jazz. Dallas trumpeter Freddie Jones and Hammond B3 master Red Young have been frequent features there.
For many Fort Worthians now in or near their 30s, entrée into the world of jazz came from exposure to Bertha Coolidge, a funky fusion outfit that included the aforementioned Joey Carter and Paul Metzger along with drummer Rich Stitzel, who now resides in Chicago, and bassist Aden Bubeck, who now makes bank touring with Miranda Lambert. The good news here is that Stitzel will be returning to the Fort for almost a month in early 2008, and coincidentally, Bubeck will be off the road at the same time. Keep your eyes and ears open for news of some Bertha Coolidge reunion action.
As stated earlier, at least some of the credit for making jazz more visible in the Fort belongs to Jazz By the Boulevard and its organizer, Historic Camp Bowie’s Donna Van Ness. For the past five years, she’s done yeoman work in attracting sponsors and quality (not just popular) headliners to the festival. Still, it has to stick in her craw that native son Ornette is headlining next year’s jazzfest in, um, Portland, Oregon (with Cecil Taylor, no less), but thus far, she’s been unable to shake loose the funds to pay his fee. Ditto Shannon Jackson, who sits in his house on the North Side, composing music daily (including a dance piece for his daughter, a Juilliard graduate who’s worked with Celine Dion in Las Vegas) but skeptical of finding a local venue to give his work the presentation it deserves. Maybe the big leap will come in 2008. We live in hope.
Ornette Coleman: http://www.ornettecoleman.com/
Ronald Shannon Jackson: http://ronaldshannonjackson.com/
6th Street Live: www.myspace.com/6thstreetfortworth
Jhon Kahsen: www.myspace.com/johnnycase
Arts Fifth Avenue: www.artsfifthavenue.com
Jazz By the Boulevard: www.fortworthjazz.com
Scat Jazz Lounge: www.scatjazzlounge.com
Saint Frinatra: www.saintfrinatra.com
Bertha Coolidge: www.myspace.com/berthacoolidge