Jazz might be the United States’ great contribution to global culture (though the term itself is sometimes rejected as a label by artists associated with it). It is just as, if not more “American” than apple pie or baseball (while being much tastier than the former and a lot more exciting than the latter). And just like the U.S., jazz defies categorization; it is spectrum of sonic and semantic possibility: at turns, elegant protest, subversive commentary, and living history. It pushes boundaries and represents a complex fusion of diverse cultures and traditions. Its story is one of innovation and passion, singular drive and relentless exploration. However, the story of jazz is also one fraught with tragedy, racism, cultural misappropriation and the capitalistic disenfranchisement of independent artists by sprawling, avaricious corporations. Again, very American.
While much of what’s considered modern jazz began in the U.S., it is now an art form that is loved and practiced around the world. It is so popular that the United Nations designated today, April 30th, as “International Jazz Day”, an event designed to “bring together communities, schools, artists, historians, academics, and jazz enthusiasts all over the world to celebrate and learn about jazz and its roots, future and impact”. One of the great things about jazz is no matter where it is performed, it brings people together.
Champaign-Urbana may not be known the world over for its jazz scene. However, there are still plenty of community members that are passionate about the genre and venues that host shows. Two such places are “Blackbird Urbana” and “The Iron Post”.
Blackbird Urbana hosts a “Friday Jazz Happy Hour” that features a different group each week. Earlier this month, I had the chance to check out “TMB +”, a quartet comprised of vocalist Thomas Brewer, guitarists Bob Watson and Matt Stewart and violinist Dorothy Martirano, all musicians who clearly enjoy performing as a way to connect with others. Their set was filled with gypsy jazz interpretations of jazz and blues standards, including a lilting, bittersweet cover of the Bill Withers classic, “Ain’t No Sunshine”. Sipping a drink, listening to the quartet’s soothing tunes was a relaxing way to end the week. The show also reminded me of why live music in a small, college town is so great. In intimate venues, small groups of people gather to share their passion with their appreciate fellow citizens. Another instance of jazz bringing people together.
The Iron Post is also known for using music to unite the local masses and as venue known for hosting a wide variety of shows, from solo acoustic singer-songwriters to bluegrass groups and salsa bands. Their event calendar also boasts a variety of jazz performers. “Smile Politely” Music Editor Nicole Lanphier caught a recent show by “Erik Lund’s Jazz Friends” (who play at every second Friday of the month at “the Post”). The show featured former UIUC music professor Ray Sasaki on trumpet and ran the gamut from ballad to up-tempo, funk-inspired grooves and provided the perfect ambiance for an enjoyable, yet low-key night on the town. The video below of the group's performance at the Post a few years ago gives you an idea of the sounds and sights you can expect if you treat yourself to an early Friday show.
While small, the jazz scene in Champaign-Urbana is alive and well. You just have to know where to look. So, if your curiosity is sufficiently piqued, go check out a show at Blackbird or the Iron Post, enjoy as local musicians share their talents and passion for this uniquely American form of expression and, as the inimitable bandleader and drummer Art Blakey once put it, let the music “wash away the dust of everyday life”.
Cover photo from Blackbird Facebook page, all other images by John Kotnarowski