Vocalist Pascal Elia, right, sits in with the Uli Geissendoerfer Trio at the Dispensary. PHOTO: BILL HUGHES
“Where can I see real jazz played in town?”
Whether called in during deadline or yelled in my ear during a gig, this remains, in my experience, one of the questions most frequently asked by Vegas music fans. It’s always been hard to answer, given the historical scarcity and randomness of places willing to program jazz that wasn’t of the smooth, pop or “standard” varieties. Why should a town with a lounge culture like ours struggle to maintain regular homes for jazz music? But ask the patrons of former venues like Pogo’s, Jazzed Cafe, The Blue Note and The Tender Trap. Jazz has a limited — and aging — audience.
Maybe it was the last inquiry, or while listening to a John Coltrane record earlier this year, or following the opening of the Cabaret Jazz room at the Smith Center — one or all of those things provoked me to stop answering that prevailing question off the top of my head, and actually find out for myself. And lo and behold, I found five entities where one can regularly experience noncommercial, mostly instrumental jazz — “the good stuff,” as the various players call it — in a live setting.
2451 E. Tropicana Ave., www.thedispensarylounge.com
Nothing prepares you for what you’re about to experience upon opening the red door to this nondescript strip mall bar just southeast of the university district.
You encounter a set of random, Bonanza-style swinging doors, which quickly reveal a giant water wheel across the entrance. The bar itself occupies very little real estate in this not-exactly-a-dive, not-exactly-a-lounge establishment. Carrying your $6 Stella Artois to a booth or couch requires not tripping over your feet while transversing the thick carpeting, what I’m guessing is one of the many things that’s not changed about this place since its 1976 opening.
On the night of my first visit, a small group of musicians occupy the conversation pit that also hosts the water wheel. One of them is Los Angeles-based baritone saxophonist Adam Schroeder, whose name is splashed across the lone promo poster near the door. Another is a gentleman I just saw at the jazz concert I took in not an hour earlier: Julian Tanaka, a tenor saxophonist (he also plays the clarinet) and UNLV student. And rounding out the bodies visible from where I’m sitting — there’s a drum kit somewhere up there, and very well may be a drummer — is Uli Geissendoerfer, the man behind the keys. Soon after I arrive, the musicians begin playing straight-no-chaser jazz, free of the usual vocals local outfits are typically obligated to include to make the music more palatable.
On my second visit, there is a vocalist, albeit singing atop some occasionally adventurous — and sometimes Brazilian — sounds. “The instrumental nights weren’t as strong as I wanted them to be, so I stopped them,” says Geissendoerfer, who plays every weekend and programs the entertainment at the Dispensary. “It was the gaming. They don’t want to listen to energetic jazz because they cannot concentrate. So that’s why I try and strike a balance [with the vocalist]. You grab some of the mainstream [with the vocalist], but at the same time you play open. It’s like a walk on a continuous precipice!”
That delicate compromise is Geissendoerfer’s survival tactic in a city he finds dominated by entertainment and not necessarily artistry. But he’s working on encouraging musicians who genuinely want to become artists. Not only is the composer and former Viva Elvis music director running the stage at the Dispensary, he teaches at UNLV in the music department’s jazz studies area, the same program in which Tanaka is an undergraduate.
“It’s not that I find the scene fertile, but there are some really great players here,” Geissendoerfer says. “[Dispensary] gave me a niche to do a little more. It is not perfect. But I’m trying to stimulate [the jazz scene] more.
“There’s the open platform I provide, where you can just sit in and play,” he adds. “But there’s also a scene that needs to emerge where people get together and work on something. And you cannot just do that by jamming. Jamming has a natural ceiling.”
My first visit happens on the Dispensary’s monthly jam session. Musicians in the audience will later shuffle in between their seats and the performance area, as they do (even more so) on my second visit. The later it gets, the more bodies file in, as most of their Strip work shifts have ended. People are socializing, but that’s OK. It feels like a scene and almost — bright lighting aside — like a genuine venue. Tanaka concurs: “It’s got more of a jazz club vibe than a lot of places in town.”
“I feel like, it’s not Vegas anymore, it’s more like New York,” Geissendoerfer says of the Dispensary. “Which makes me very happy.”
Friday-Saturday, 10 p.m.
E-STRING NIGHTCLUB AND POKER BAR
2031 W. Sunset Road, www.estringlive.com
Most who descend Sunset Road at the invisible Green Valley/Henderson border have passed E-String and thought nothing of the place. It looks like neither a nightclub nor a conventional poker bar. It’s only inside that the place takes on sort of a suburban House of Blues fell, where you might be more likely to hear Charlie Patton than Charlie Parker. But this is Henderson, so don’t hold your breath for hearing either.
Former jazz singer Marsha Ross saw something else, though, and for nearly four years, she’s made the E-String into the dominant jazz locale in H-Town, which is to say there’s another nearby (more on that in a bit).
“If you look at Birdland and all these famous places in New York and Chicago and San Francisco, they’re kind of … dive haunt jazz spots,” she says over the phone, upbeat after watching her beloved San Francisco 49ers beat the New Orleans Saints on TV. “We painted [E-String] gray and hung jazz pictures. To me, it’s the perfect jazz spot. The acoustics are incredible. Even the big bands like playing there; it doesn’t sound too loud.”
She might’ve driven past the southeast Birdland-in-disguise if not for her dogged persistence to keep producing jazz shows after the closure of Black Label Bar and Lounge on South Decatur Boulevard, where she helped program live entertainment. It was Christmas Eve of 2008, she and her husband spent a long day pitching countless venues, looking for a new place to book the big bands and bebop combos she befriended over the years, especially when patronizing former jazz spots like the Four Queens, the Riviera, Patty’s Pub and Capozzoli’s.
“I said, let’s try one more place and then go home,” she says. “I went to E-String, told them what I like to do, and it has to be weekly. I’d provide all the mics, cords, mic stands and all that stuff. They said OK!”
Undeterred by the Henderson location — a far drive from Summerlin, Sun City and North Las Vegas, where most of her patrons from Black Label resided — Ross begin reaching out to musicians she knew for weekend shows, scheduled in the afternoon to accommodate both older jazz fans and those who worked on the Strip in the evenings. Later, she would expand her bookings into the week.
For all Ross’ difficulty in attracting patrons to this corner of the valley, the audience for Nov. 24’s show featuring Boss Bebop Jazz Septet, led by alto saxophonist Tom Hall and featuring Grammy-winning tenor saxophonist Gary Anderson, is surprisingly diverse. And discernibly older. “Are you a musician?” one nearby attendee asks me, the only Gen X’er in the room. I’ve never been asked that at a rock show.
You could call the crowd a target demographic. “We’re in the golden years, I guess you could call it,” says Ross. “People asked about the big bands and where to hear them. They knew I’d been affiliated with [big band jazz trombonist] Jimmie Wilkins, who used to play at Murphy’s Pub. After they stopped [live jazz], he stopped playing. That’s why I started [producing live jazz events] again. It was mainly for the older people. But I want the younger people to experience it, too. It’s like experiencing living history.”
To that end, Ross books the Rossi/Reyes Jazz Orchestra, comprised of 18 or 19 musicians aged 15 to 20, for the first Sunday each month. (She also books a young tribute rock act, Out of Date, and an original tyke-rock act, DIGG.) Ross, like many in the jazz scene, is concerned about the generational divide in jazz, and is as enthusiastic about bridging that gap as she is about her big bands — or her 49ers.
Saturday, 2 p.m. Jimmie Wilkins and the New Life Orchestra: every first Saturday, 2 p.m., $10. Rossi/Reyes Jazz Orchestra: every first Sunday, 4 p.m., $5.
OSAKA JAPANESE BISTRO
10920 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson; www.lasvegas-sushi.com
E-String’s slate of traditional jazz in Henderson would surprise anyone not knowing the aberrant way the local music scene operates. Even more astounding: There’s another southeast restaurant with a regular jazz offering — and has been doing so for damn near 10 years, as under the radar as a B-2 bomber.
I visit this Osaka one night not to sample its yellowtail, but its jazz. Geoff Neuman, a bassist/music instructor who has dabbled almost equally among the rock, classical and jazz worlds, was heading a trio (now a duo, with exceptions), playing mostly cool, straight-ahead, if melancholy jazz. After a busy day, it’s just what I need, but I’m in the minority. On this Thursday, the lounge area is, like the restaurant in general, pretty empty. The man to my right has his head down on the bar, which the bartender just shrugs off. “Small or large Sapporo?” she asks me. Better make it a small.
“We have had our share of slow nights as would be expected with a steady gig,” says Neuman later. “Luckily, there’s never any pressure except to play our best.” Which is what the trio does on the night of my visit, with a perfect pre-bedtime soundtrack. Other nights, they might play some standards, or even apply rock and pop songs to their particular jazz aesthetic.
“It’s like a mini Yoshi’s,” says musician and radio producer/engineer Ginger Bruner, comparing Osaka to the famous Oakland jazz club.
Neuman has been spoiled. A long-running jazz gig is rare in this city, and he’s almost a decade into his Osaka residency, started casually when drummer Masashi Tanaka asked him and pianist John Matteson to play a one-off at the restaurant. “That one gig ended up being a lot longer than we expected,” says Neuman, who credits Osaka owner (and former trumpeter) Gene Nakanishi, whose restaurant is an unconventional jazz spot. But the scenario is indicative of how jazz and its enthusiasts have had to adapt to the cultural temperature of Las Vegas.
“It’s sad because there are some amazing musicians in this town that are at a world-class level,” says Neuman. “But there has not been many places for them to play. That’s one of the reasons we are so grateful for our gig at Osaka and for Gene’s support of the trio. There has been a few places that have recently added regular jazz nights to their calendars, but even those seem to be losing the momentum they had when they first started. Hopefully this will change.”
Thursday, 8 p.m.
4505 S. Maryland Parkway, www.pac.unlv.edu.
CLARK COUNTY LIBRARY
1401 E. Flamingo Road, www.lvccld.org
It was just another night of big band jazz from the UNLV jazz department at the Clark County Library Theater when Dave Loeb, director of the university’s award-winning jazz studies area, announced that Jazz Ensemble 1 would do something a little different: It would play a Radiohead song. Yup, that Radiohead, by a 17-piece big band (which included Julian Tanaka). The ensemble took the translation for 2007’s “Bodysnatchers” and found a remarkable balance between its conventional verses and choruses and bridges, and the new, jazz-like interludes that bookended them.
When I speak to Loeb by phone later, he chuckles at my praise for the “cover,” which he deems a great example of how pop and jazz can work symbiotically. “Great music is great music,” he says. “A great melody and structure can work in many different ways. We shouldn’t be limited in framework. It’s a wonderful evolution.”
The UNLV jazz department has evolved wonderfully itself, winning awards and acclaim outside of Nevada, and — much to Loeb’s delight — making professionals and/or in-demand players out of student musicians like Tanaka, who toured with the traveling Frank Sinatra-themed show Come Fly With Me, and trombonist Nate Kimball, who debuted his new album by playing Cabaret Jazz.
“These are two guys who are world-class,” says Geissendoerfer. “And there are some other young, emerging players as well.”
The local jazz scene may be fragmented, but its players share the same complaints. That jazz musicians can take their audiences for granted or flat-out disregard them. That there aren’t enough places to play noncommercial jazz. That showroom players don’t go off-Strip enough for extracurricular gigs that might arouse their creative spirit. That the music has become mostly the cultural domain of the senior crowd, and caters largely toward its nostalgic sensibilities.
And, most importantly, that the jazz world must improve its reach toward — and among — younger generations.
“[Students are] out playing various clubs, where they play regularly in jam sessions,” says Loeb. “They’re speaking with a lot of people. But I think there needs to be a lot more of that, some cross-pollination with listeners who aren’t as [familiar] with jazz. There needs to be a resurgence of that, and it needs to come from the students, from their generation. [Jazz is] American classical music; it’s the music we’ve created here, and we should be embracing it. … But it’s got to happen from the young people influencing other students, [exposing] the wonderful legacy and vibrancy of that music.”
Loeb’s students form combos and ensembles to play theaters like the one at Clark County Library and UNLV’s own Doc Rando Recital Hall. Collectively, they may be the best group of musicians in Las Vegas. And they are unquestionably the city’s best hope to wake local jazz from its slumber and spark a whole new movement. The germination of that has already begun. The performances draw well and across the demographic board. And the students apply their learned skills by showcasing an impressive range of musical styles and approaches — this, to say nothing of how well they’ve mastered jazz’s defining and most alluring component, live improvisation.
“It’s like spontaneous composition,” says Loeb. “With jazz, it’s dependent on that spontaneity and creation of real-time composition when the musicians are improvising. It’s always growing and evolving. With people brought up on Rihanna, that’s wonderful, but there’s such a high level of artistry in jazz that I think when this generation is introduced to it, there will be a resurgence.”
For concert schedules and info, visit the library and university websites.
1025 S. 1st St.; www.artificebar.com
Out of all of the unorthodox venues regularly featuring traditional, noncommercial jazz, 18b Arts District urban lounge Artifice may most look the part, with its wooden floors, minimalist design, dark colors and eccentric art. Owner Brett Sperry puts the syncopation in more philosophical terms: “Improvisational jazz is a key part of what Artifice does best: Celebrate and provide space to experiment and sketch out new work by musicians, artists, writers and performers.”
Last year, he sought out someone to kickstart an improv jazz night. He consulted with one of his Sunday night DJs and audio techs, the late Doug Frye, about a good candidate. At the same time, trumpeter and pianist Mike Gonzales, a Phoenix ex-pat who has lived smack in the middle of the arts district for years, heard that Sperry was seeking live jazz musicians. Soon after, he met Sperry, who green-lit a Sunday night jazz event featuring the Gonzo Groove Situation, a band headed by Gonzales, with DJ Rex Dart spinning in between sets.
The “gonzo” part infers a deviation from tradition. While Gonzales certainly draws upon a foundation of jazz and blues, his predilection for fusion — particularly 1960s- and 1970s-era jazz — often colors each night’s unscripted set. “It didn’t end up becoming [strict] jazz,” he says. “The thing I play sounds like jazz, because that’s my vocabulary, especially with the trumpet. I wanted to go more into rock and funk, with jazz influences.”
In fact, Gonzales says he best sells “Gonzo” to newbies when he doesn’t drop genre names — a promotional tactic with which other jazz event producers and musicians might want to experiment.
“I try not to use the word ‘jazz,’” he says. “It’s a limiting word. They don’t know what to think of it. [If you tell them it’s] improvisational music, they think it will be more artistic, or they don’t know what it will be. And then they come and hear it and say, ‘It sounds like jazz.’ But they’re confused, because it’s not like jazz they’ve heard before.”
“Gonzo” has won over both jazz fans and, most of all, Artifice regulars. After a year, the bar’s performance space now fills up with onlookers and musicians seeking to sit in. Unlike the management of the Bunkhouse, which nixed Gonzales’ summertime jazz workshop night recently — KUNV-FM DJ George Lyons helped relaunch it at Ferraro’s on Nov. 26 and packed the lounge area — Sperry was patient with “Gonzo.” “It’s one of the regular [Artifice] happenings I’m deeply fond of,” he says. And it likely gave the Satin Saddle Live Orchestra the go-ahead to stage its big band concert on Nov. 25 at the bar. That afternoon concert drew over 30 people. (Disclosure: SSLO bandleader Soeren Johnson is this writer’s landlord.)
Gonzales’ great hope for “Gonzo” is, like many of his peers, to make jazz accessible without compromising the artform’s signature elements or his own artistic vision. He knows all too well how difficult it is to draw sizeable (and new) crowds. But he keeps things in perspective. As Tanaka, his co-soloist at Ferraro’s, puts it, “As far as trying to get audiences at jazz gigs, that’s been a problem since the 1940s, with bebop. People forget bebop was an underground movement.”
And so Gonzales focuses on his craft, literally putting his heart into it. He is a passionate player, following through on Dave Loeb’s wish that young jazz musicians “grab the emotional content and play it like it’s the last thing they’ll ever play.” Gonzales does this onstage, eyes often shut, completely caught up in the colorful whirlwind he and his musical cohorts stir up.
And he’s just as spirited talking about jazz as he is playing it. “To watch a real jazz band, it should make you go through all sorts of moods,” he says. “You should be on the edge of your seat, excited, watching what goes on live. There’s so many times we’re onstage and building toward something — and then we miss it. And that’s OK. The people are along with you.
“Jazz is always in the moment — you can’t plan for it.”
Sunday, 10 p.m.
Live jazz — of all flavors and styles — is featured in other local venues. Here’s a non-comprehensive list of those alternatives. Check websites for event info.
Bar & Bistro @ The Arts Factory, 107 E. Charleston Blvd. #155, www.barbistroaf.com
Blue Fire, 4275 S. Durango Drive, www.bluefirerestaurant.com
The Bootlegger Bistro, 7700 Las Vegas Blvd. South, www.bootleggerlasvegas.com
Cabaret Jazz @ The Smith Center, 361 Symphony Park Ave., www.thesmithcenter.com/cabaret-jazz
The Cellar, 3601 W. Sahara Ave., 362-6268
Ferraro’s, 4480 Paradise Road, www.ferraroslasvegas.com
Gordon Biersch, 3987 Paradise Road, 312-5247
Ichabod’s Lounge, 3300 E. Flamingo Road, www.ichabodsloungelasvegas.com
Republic Kitchen & Bar, 9470 S. Eastern Ave., www.republickitchenandbar.com