Our Louisville Slugger on the Scene

Our Louisville Slugger on the Scene

by Danny "Yardhog" O'Bryan
copyright © 2002 Danny O'Bryan

In 1973 I sat in one of the front rows of the Brown Theatre to hear Duke Ellington and his fabulous orchestra. Ellington was sick, his body racked with the cancer that would fell him a year later, but when he stood in front of his band he was young again.

Paul Gonsalves, the great tenor saxophonist who had virtually put Ellington's Orchestra back in the public eye with his astounding 27 chorus solo on the maestro's "Diminuendo and Crescendo in Blue" at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival, was sitting up front in the sax section that night in an increasingly inebriated state.

Whenever his band members misbehaved Ellington would "punish" them with some extraordinary task. That night Gonsalves was chosen to perform his "strolling saxophone" routine. He bravely walked down the aisles of the Brown that evening playing Duke's beautiful ballad "In a Sentimental Mood " with his signature breathy tone but without missing a beat.

After the concert, Gonvsalves who was packing up his horn, spied me in the crowd and waved me over. "Hey man, why don't you come with me and have a drink at the Seelbach?"

I couldn't make it that night, I had to play sax with a rather bad rock n' roll band, and I've regretted it ever since. However, a few weeks ago I was sitting in the old Seelbach Bar listening to vibraphonist's Dick Sisto's group. Tenor saxophonist Mark Colby, an astounding jazz virtuoso from Chicago, was on the small bandstand along with the ubiquitous Louisville bassist Tyrone Wheeler and drummer Jonathan Higgins. Colby ended the night by playing "In a Sentimental Mood."

Some things never change in Louisville jazz. Even 30 years later. Sisto, who has been leading the band at the Seelbach for the last 12 years, thinks the local jazz scene is healthy. "If you look for them there are a lot of places to play, even for the young cats," he says.

Finding jazz in Louisville is a treasure hunt but full of surprises. In one week last month it was possible to swing with the Roger Dane Jazz Orchestra on Monday night at the Comedy Caravan in the Mid City Mall 1250 Bardstown Road. Listen to alternative jazz at ArtsWatch, 2337 Frankfort Ave. Get funky with the Java Men, Derby town's answer to Medeski Martin and Wood at the Red Lounge, 2106 Frankfort Ave. Or be sophisticated on Wednesday (hump day) with the venerable, vocal duo Walker & Kays at Clifton's Pizza, 2230 Frankfort Ave.

Then end the week on Friday with the bebop of the internationally known jazz educator and saxophonist Jamey Aebersold at the Twicetold Coffee House, 1604 Bardstown Rd. or saxophonist Ron Jones at Artemisia, 620 E. Market St.

And that's only part of the club scene. Ken Clay, who handles the jazz booking at the Kentucky Center for the Arts thinks the audience for jazz in Louisville is good but changing. "We've had to cancel the Jazz in Central Park concerts this year but we will. We'll begin a new Jazz and Heritage concert in September that features jazz, rhythm and blues and gospel on alternate nights," Clay says.

The 2002/2003 Kentucky Center for the Arts calendar is chock full of jazz artists from singer Diane Schuur on January 24 as a Lonesome Pine Special to Sandra Reaves-Phillips Presenting the Late Great Ladies of Blues & Jazz on December 7 in the Midnite Ramble series.

Added to that are the Sunday Jazz Cabaret sessions that begin in September featuring local jazz wizards like pianist Ray Johnson and guitarist Ron Hayden.

In the past, jazz organizations like the Louisville Jazz Council (which was organized by the late Louisville saxophonist Bobby Jones, who was to become a major soloist with jazz bassist Charles Mingus in the early 1970s) played a major part in bringing jazz acts to town.

The Louisville Jazz Society, which was formed in the early 1980s, has been dormant for the last year or so but a new organization The Jazz in the Community Foundation has come to the rescue. Operating on a broad metaphor that jazz is a good way to bring people together in this new age of Metro-City Government, the group has produced two successful concerts at Glassworks, 815 West Market, The most recent with San Francisco jazz diva Madeline Eastman the week before the Kentucky Derby.

Jazz in the Community Foundation president Ken Shapero said that the organization would continue to promote jazz in Louisville working with the other organizations and the Jamey Aebersold Jazz Studies Program at the University of Louisville School of Music.

The UL program produces a week-long jazz extravaganza each year in February that features some of the biggest names in jazz.

"We would like to raise money for jazz scholarships for young and up-coming musicians," Shapero says.

Jazz on local radio is alive and well according to WFPK and WFPL station manager Gerry Weston. "We plan to maintain a strong commitment to jazz even with the changes in some of National Public Radio's programming," Weston says.

The untimely passing earlier this year of local radio, jazz radio guru Phil Bailey was a tragic loss to the community and jazz according to Weston. "It's hard to replace a legend but we're trying," he says.

During the 1960s Eddie Donaldson's 118 Washington St., was a favorite Louisville jazz haunt. The famous monk Thomas Merton hung out there. Just read his journals. And in 1968 I sat at the bar and had a drink with jazz multi-instrumetalist wonder Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

After years of being shut down a new club has opened at the same location called The Museum. I'm going there tonight to have what writer Walker Percy calls in his novel The Moviegoer a repetition. Which is according to the author "the re-enactment of past experience toward the end of isolating the time segment which has lapsed so that it may be savored."

The alternative band playing features drums, cello, guitar, Wurlitzer organ and lap steel. I don't know if you would call it jazz or not but you might as well. Something's never change in Louisville jazz.

C o m m e n t s

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June 20, 05

I was one of the founding members of the Louisville Jazz Council. I was about 18 or 19 and was very impressed with the organizational work of Kenneth Stanley, Jr. and Jamey Aebersold. I look back on those ways as high points in my life and I have often thought back on the industry and can-do attitude that accomplished so very much with so very little in times of challenge. I now live very far away and hope Louisville will appreciate and build upon it's heritage.

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