The Jazz Scene in Atlanta

The Jazz Scene in Atlanta

by Susan Rosmarin
originally published in Jazz Notes
copyright © 1999 Susan Rosmarin

Actually, there isn't much jazz on a consistent basis in Atlanta, or as much as I would like to see. Having lived here for 25 years, I have observed many jazz clubs attempt to be successful, only to close because of poor management, location, inconsistent bookings, and lack of advertising, but the main reason being the lack of commitment and funds to keep a jazz club afloat. Unfortunately, this town really doesn't support a full time jazz club. Most of this is due to the fact that Atlanta is an oasis in Georgia. People from all over the rural areas of Georgia come to Atlanta and bring their own musical tastes, which is usually country/western or pop.

On the bright side, however, many fine national artists have performed here over the years at various clubs during their short existence. Fortunately, there is an annual three day outdoor jazz festival underwritten by the City of Atlanta Bureau of Cultural Affairs.

It has been in existence for 21 years, and the events are free. This festival has devolved from two weekends of free jazz to just one weekend, occurring over the Memorial Day weekend and attendance is always tremendous. In the past 21 years, I can recall only twice that the festival was =rained out and took place in an alternative indoor location. This year's festival featured many outstanding local musicians, as well as Kevin Mahogany, Dianne Reeves, Andy Milne, Mark Turner, the Detroit All-Stars featuring Frank Foster, Marcus Belgrave, Kenny Burrell and Geri Allen. Rob Gibson was one of the artistic directors before he was snatched by Lincoln Center to be the director of the Jazz Program around 1993. During his term as artistic director, some of the most innovative and interesting performances were booked. Due to a typical governmental bureaucracy, over the years there have been many artistic directors who have had their own agenda regarding who to book, some of whom would schedule many of their jazz cronies, sometimes two or three years in a row. For a long period, only contemporary jazz was being booked, much to the chagrin of many of the mainstream fans. It is difficult for any artistic director to maintain the right balance of all types of jazz due to availability of the artist, the amount of funds available, and the difficulty of bringing these artists to Atlanta. But overall, the jazz festival has been successful presenting just about all of the nationally known musicians, such as Miles Davis, Stan Getz, Tommy Flanagan, Max Roach, Sarah Vaughan, Milt Jackson, Carman McRae, Dizzy Gillespie, Arturo Sandoval, Abdullah Ibrahim, Randy Weston, Jackie McLean, Anthony Braxton, so many that I can't remember them all! The Montreux/Atlanta Jazz Festival takes place on Labor Day weekend, and usually has a few jazz acts, mixed in with the more popular venues. This festival is about 10 years old and is also free.

But what Atlanta lacks in live jazz is more than made up by jazz radio. There's lots of jazz radio. There are two PBS stations and three college radio stations. The scheduling is a little crazy, but for the most part, you can hear jazz just about 24 hours a day. Digital Music Express is also available, for a monthly fee, through local cable. That's probably the best bargain — $10 per month for 24-hour advertising-free broadcasts of CD quality jazz.

Concert-wise, there is one venue that consistently books jazz, The Variety Playhouse, in an area of Atlanta that is sort of a poor man's Greenwich Village. It's called Little Five Points and you can see just about anything there. Lots of skinheads, gays, punks, homeless, alternative music, coffee houses, consignment shops, avant garde clothing stores, head shops, used record stores, as well as some of the best restaurants in Atlanta. The Variety recently booked Joe Sample, Fourplay, Don Byron, and Oregon in a span of about three months. The promoters of the Variety are willing to take a chance on the lesser known jazz artists, and if they break even, they consider the show a success. The hall seats 800 and for the more well-known names, usually fills up. Artists such as Don Byron can only draw about half as many. They make their money on the more popular music. There are other venues to promote jazz, such as the Lakewood Amphitheater, that sometimes brings in the JVC Jazz Festival for one night, and Chastain Park, an outdoor bandshell in the middle of a neighborhood that has a series that includes one or two jazz acts. This year it's Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra. The only bad thing is the 11:00 p.m. curfew for the music. Unfortunately, Atlanta embraces contemporary jazz readily, but does not support the mainstream artists.

In the meantime, a new jazz supper club has opened in an excellent location. Sambucca opened the end of June, and has booked many of the local jazz musicians. They have jazz seven nights a week, and plan on bringing in some national acts. It is possible that this club might make it, due to the fact that it has opened two other clubs in Texas and the owners (a brother and sister) plan to open more. Obviously, they seem to know what they are doing. There are some strange house rules, however, that the club has imposed. First, it is expensive for an Atlanta club, although there is no cover and no minimum, which will definitely go over in this town. (People in Atlanta do not like to pay covers or minimums). There is a two-hour minimum during peak hours at which you may stay at your table, and a minimum dining purchase of $12.95 per person. The very worst part of this club is that right now it is the 'in' place, not a place to come hear jazz. The talk level is decimating to musicians and to fans who come to hear the music. The piano stinks and the sound system is terrible. It's a typical jazz club.

Before I leave the wrong impression, most of the jazz booked in Atlanta is through the various venues, and you do have your choices. Coming up in the next couple of months is the David Grisman Quintet, the Strictly Jazz Magazine 5th Anniversary Concert, the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet, Cleo Laine, The Rippingtons, Jazz Explosion featuring Rachelle Ferrell and George Duke, Sergio Mendez, a Blues Fest with B.B. King, Dr. John, and the Neville Brothers, and The Legends of New Orleans. The National Black Arts Festival, which occurs every two years, is presenting Yusef Lateef with the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra, Cecil Bridgewater and Vanessa Rubin, and the Black Rock Coalition featuring Max Roach. Also performing are Oliver Lake, Reggie Workman and Andrew Cyrille.

Come to think of it, Atlanta really isn't that bad!


C o m m e n t s

Atlanta Jazz 1 of 1
Michael Renner March 20, 99

Susan, good article...it gave me a sense of the current scene down there. And now that Russell Gunn has moved there, he may play in more venues there.

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