Encompassing passion, skill, diversity, and evolution, jazz music is a creative cornucopia – an art form that provides listeners with unique experiences in every performance. With a vast spectrum of subgenres, a jazz performance is limited only by the ability and imagination of the performers. Whether it’s being played by orchestras or solo performers, jazz can range stylistically from easy listening and pop to the avant-garde and experimental. It can be played in rooms ranging from museums and churches to nightclubs.
With jazz, the bottom line is creativity.
“I fell in love with jazz when I realized it doesn’t limit you,” says Marcus Monteiro, a 34-year-old saxophone player from Marion who has spent half his life playing publicly. He is currently the leader of the jazz/funk quartet the Monteirobots.
“With jazz you are able to incorporate any other musical styles into your playing,” Monteiro says. “The challenges of jazz can come from the complexities of the music or the rhythms.”
Jazz’s hallmark feature is improvisation, which allows a performer to move from the structure of a song and spontaneously create music that is based entirely in the moment, also known as “the feel” of the musician. Consequently, each live jazz performance is an inimitable expression, a one-of-a-kind interpretation of a song.
“When you’re improvising it’s like telling a story that no one’s ever heard before,” says acoustic bass player Barry Gross from South Dartmouth, a member of the local jazz/funk outfit the Flying Dutchmen. “Your bandmates listen and support you as you tell that story.”
“Improv gives you freedom, it’s thrilling,” says Dori Rubbicco, a singer/songwriter and pianist
from Dartmouth with a degree in Jazz Vocal.
“I love the adrenaline rush you get from improvising,” says percussionist Dan Schwartz of Dartmouth. The 70-year-old has performed actively for 45 years, including 20 with local jazz legend Bobby Greene in the band Coleus.
“Improvising is a spur-of-the-moment experience,” Schwartz says. “You never feel the same every day so you don’t play a song the same way.”
“You can spend your whole life studying improvisation,” Monteiro says. “It’s a never-ending quest for creativity.”
All that Jazz
Every month or two the opportunity for creativity seems to grow as more jazz is being played in the South Coast.
Six months ago, Cork Wine & Tapas in downtown New Bedford began hosting one jazz night per month. Based on the popularity of those evenings they have grown to one jazz show every Thursday, and sometimes more frequently than that.
Guitar professor Jim Robitaille, a New Bedford native, hosts the Performance Jam Session Series at UMass Dartmouth, a collection of free concerts that feature high-caliber performers from throughout the northeast along with an opportunity for UMass students to take to the stage and try their own skills. These concerts have been taking place for six years, with three-to-six shows per year.
Arias Lounge in Providence hosts a Jam Session every Wednesday night, and the Inn at Shipyard Park in Mattapoisett hosts a jazz brunch led by sax player Trevor Kellum on the first Sunday of every month. The Wamsutta Club in downtown New Bedford is an occasional sight for jazz shows.
The SouthCoast Jazz Orchestra plays once or twice a month on a Monday night at Gilda’s Stone Rooster in Marion, playing Big Band and swing music.
The region is treated to two jazz festivals in the summer – the New Bedford Jazz Festival and the Newport Jazz Fest. The New Bedford event takes place in June on the city’s waterfront, bringing a variety of jazz styles performed by national, regional, and local performers. They have a “something for everyone” approach to the music that began five years ago. In their first year, they had 200 visitors. Last year they drew more than 700.
“People come up to me after a show and say, ‘I never knew I liked jazz,’” Montiero says. “It’s not the same boring cocktail stuff that some people are used to hearing.”
“With jazz you have a vast range of songs that you can pick and choose from depending on the room you’re playing,” Rubbicco says. “There are also degrees of difficulty – some songs can be simplistic and some can be challenging.”
And while jazz can have a very free feeling, it’s usually not just musicians throwing random notes around.
“There’s a lot of education that goes into becoming a quality improvisor,” says John Harrison III, a piano professor at UMass-Dartmouth and a New Bedford native. “Music is a unique language and there’s a lot of technique involved. Jazz is a challenging genre and you have to spend a lot of time studying your instrument.”
Just a Little Different
For many jazz players one of their interests is to interpret a song in their own style.
“There can be a variety of interpretations for the same song,” says Dave Reis, a deejay at WUMD-FM, where he has hosted a jazz show for 25 years. “A song like ‘Somewhere Over The Rainbow’ has been interpreted numerous times. You never know how it will be done next. With most songs if you don’t like what you’re hearing, you may like it being done by somebody else.”
And while recordings can preserve classic moments in jazz, and fans may stockpile their collections with an abundance of CDs and vinyl, students of the music truly prize the experiences of live performances.
“People look forward to jazz performances because they love the experience of seeing something new being created,” Rubbicco says. “You never know what could happen.”
Many times when a bandleader will be looking for musicians to play a show they will not be concerned with talent levels or specific genres, they will be more concerned with the musical personality of each musician, how that person will interpret the songs and interact creatively with the other musicians.
Most jazz performances bring a “listening audience.” People usually attend a concert for more than food and drink and conversation – their main focus is taking in the music. This approach is unique from most other genres of music – after a musician has finished a solo the audience will politely applaud to show their appreciation and respect for what the musician has just played.
With many jazz concerts, audience members will approach the musicians at intermission or after the show is finished to have a conversation about the music.
In 1999 the state of jazz music in the region took a significant step forward when New Bedford businessman Neal Weiss started the record label Whaling City Sound.
To this day, Weiss’s influence on the local jazz community is unparalleled. From the outset he described the label’s mission as “giving a bit of our abundance of outstanding musicians the opportunity to be heard, seen, and enjoyed by a wider audience.”
Mission accomplished. In almost 18 years Weiss’s label has had regional artists heard throughout the nation and the world. Harrison’s CD, “Roman Sun,” continues to be received well in Japan, while vocalist Shawnn Montiero and saxophonist Dino Govoni have found success in the press and on radio across America.
In recent years Whaling City Sound has been able to put out very successful recordings by some of the top jazz artists in the world – three CDs by The Gerry Gibbs Thrasher Dream Trio soared to Number One on the American jazz radio charts – albums that featured performances by contemporary giants Ron Carter on bass and Kenny Barron on piano.
Weiss has taken the opportunity to release albums by non-jazz acts from the South Coast, including the electronic band Grand Army, the rock of Shipyard Wreck, the blues of Mark T. Small, the spirited folk of Pumpkin Head Ted, the eclectic grooves of the Dancing Dogs, and the sea shanties of the New Bedford Historical Sea Shanty Chorus.
Weiss maintains that the success of his artists shows that musicians from this region are comparable to musicians from around the nation – a sentiment shared by many in the area.
“New Bedford has a burgeoning music scene and jazz is a part of it,” Gross says. “There’s a lot of players in this area who could be playing in major cities like New York or L.A.”
“There’s an enthusiasm for jazz in this area with a variety of performers and styles,” Weiss says. “If you’re new to it you should start by going to live performances. Keep an open mind – there’s a large variety of styles, so don’t get disappointed if you don’t discover something you like right away.”
“Ultimately, jazz improvisors strive to do something new that people can enjoy,” Reis says. “I know people in their 70’s who are still discovering new jazz artists that they enjoy.”