It's a Friday evening, about 7:30, at the Knoxville Museum of Art. An internationally famous jazz pianist is playing keyboards alongside a veteran bebop saxman as about 300 paying customers of all ages and races stand or sit listening at tables, watching, talking quietly, drinking beer. This happens every Friday night.
The band quits at 8, and the audience files out. An hour later, a whole new audience arrives to see a whole different piano-jazz show of singing and dancing, based on the work of Fats Waller. It's packed, too.
Knoxville, as we know, is the cradle of country music, a bassinet of the blues, and one of the playpens of rock 'n' roll.
Today, though, Knoxville's becoming better known abroad for jazz.
A trumpeter and record collector who lives west of Nashville regularly makes the 200-mile trip to Knoxville three times a month just to hear the live jazz. Another jazz enthusiast who works in Atlanta maintains an apartment in Knoxville just because he's here to see live music every weekend he can fly up. Hundreds have moved here to study jazz in the past decade or so, and many have stayed. Jazz fans who travel report that Knoxville's public-radio jazz programs are light years ahead of what's available anywhere else in the Southeast.
Donald Brown, a Memphis-born pianist whose jazz recordings are known worldwide, asserts that Knoxville's jazz scene is more lively than that in his more musically famous home town. Others echo that sentiment. Never mind cities of comparable size: When jazz fans talk about what's available in Knoxville, they compare us to metropolises. And they always insist that Knoxville's got more and better jazz than Atlanta, Nashville, Memphis, or Washington, D.C.
If you haven't heard Knoxville and jazz floating on the same breath, maybe you don't get out enough. The KMA's Alive After Five is just the unlikeliest manifestation of this spirit. Several local nightclubs sometimes feature live jazz. Lucille's hosts it six nights a week. Even with a nominal cover charge, Lucille's typically packs the place, with standing room only well past midnight, even on many weeknights.
More than one observer calls this dynamic jazz phenomenon "Knoxville's best-kept secret." But the secret's already seeping out; sometimes it's better known in other corners of the planet than here in the upper Tennessee Valley. Maybe it's time to rat on all the jazz talent in Knoxville, and on the patrons, too diverse to be called a subculture, who support it. And to speculate about how we got such an unfair share of good jazz.
In the mid-'70s, public radio station WUOT, which had broadcast jazz occasionally since the late '40s, got a galvanic charge from a couple of new DJ's, Ashley Capps and Mike Dotson, maniacal young jazzhounds who approached the music with infectious curiosity. Dotson is proud of his work at WUOT, but skeptical about how many people the late-night shows reached. They weren't aware of an audience for radio jazz in Knoxville until the early '80s, when WUOT began scheduling jazz earlier in the evening. By then, something else was happening, too.
In 1975, UT, which had no jazz curriculum, hired a new saxophone teacher, only dimly aware that he was a jazz authority nationally respected since the early '60s. A veteran of Woody Herman's band originally from South Bend, Jerry Coker says that accepting the UT job was "the only selfish decision I've ever made in my life." He owned land in the mountains nearby and had a utopian dream of opening a back-to-nature jazz academy there.
To Coker, Knoxville seemed like a musically slow "sleepyhead town." He intended to keep a low profile at UT, to be "the quiet professor in a dusty corner" who pursued his own interests on his own time. He built a three-story log building near Viking Mountain, N.C., perhaps the first jazz cabin in history. It was finished around 1980, and Coker conducted some summer workshops up there, but logistics damned it. "It was enormously successful in drawing students," he says, "but it was too hard getting groceries" from the nearest store, half an hour away.
Meanwhile, UT offered opportunities with convenient groceries. Embarrassed when colleagues at other universities noticed Coker's name in UT's catalogue and said, "You must have a great jazz program," music department chairman Bill Starr talked Coker into starting one. It was an immediate success. Along with Coker and saxophonist Bill Scarlett, the department enlisted bassist Rusty Holloway, like Coker a nationally respected author on jazz technique.
Coker thinks people too often associate jazz with urbanity. "The person starting out may yearn to go to a big city, because they've heard in the song, 'If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere,'" says Coker (who incidentally has accompanied Frank Sinatra). "I've got a lot of bones to pick with that. One is that a surprisingly small number of jazz musicians come from large metro areas. They come from Dubuque, Iowa; Manhattan, Kansas. Cities don't breed great jazz, though maybe there's more work there." This nationwide jazz authority commutes to Knoxville from distinctly un-urban Dandridge.
By the late '70s, a Kingston Pike club called Chantilly's featured a local jazz combo regularly. Among the principals was a TVA employee named Rocky Wynder who'd already been playing sax in the Knoxville area for the better part of 30 years. One of only a few local jazz musicians who weren't lured here by UT's music department, the Sarasota native arrived accidentally--he was stranded here in 1949 by a big band whose name he prefers not to recall.
For years he made a living playing R&B for frat parties, but bebop was his love. On tour, he'd met Charlie Parker and several other great saxophonists of the day. Wynder is now the new executive director of the Jazz Exchange Organization, which demonstrates jazz in local high schools and coordinates special events.
Opinions about when (or whether) Knoxville experienced a sudden interest in jazz vary with the witness. To Scarlett, who remembers when Gordon's Townhouse was packing them in by the hundreds in the late '50s, it's been more or less a continuum, with ups and downs along the way. Some, like Wynder, remember Chantilly's as the beginning of the current interest in jazz.
But many remember one place and time when live jazz went ballistic. In late 1982, as the World's Fair closed, students and others ambling Cumberland Avenue sidewalks were astonished to hear something different flowing from the open door of the Best Italian Restaurant. Only remotely related to the restaurant of the same name now opening a few blocks down the street, the original Best Italian was a dark, intimate bar with original art on the walls, cheap beer, no cover--and live jazz. The house band often included members of UT's new jazz faculty, including Holloway, plus Wynder.
It was mostly just old bebop, but it was performed in such an inspired way that people packed in to hear it. UT students, beached World's Fair carnies, punked-out teenagers, young marrieds: people who'd never seen live jazz in their lives made all-night habits of the place. By early '83, the ostensive pasta restaurant was seeing standing-room-only crowds who sometimes clustered on the sidewalk outside. Jerry Coker, whose brother Jack sometimes played piano there, recalls that it was often so jammed that "the din would sometimes drive us out of there."
One regular was Annie Delisle, a former dancer from England (and ex-wife of novelist Cormac McCarthy) who daydreamed of opening her own jazz club. In the slum district nobody was yet calling the Old City, Annie carved out an upscale continental restaurant--and entertained her daring customers with live jazz.
A fire destroyed the Best in early '84. The jazz soon moved downtown, briefly to a lounge called Piccolo's and to a short-lived Market Square spot called the Milestone, opened by soft-jazz band leader Lee Miles Stone. But it was at Annie's that jazz thrived, even when there was nothing else open down there so late.
After Delisle left in 1990, of course, her place became known as Lucille's. Jazz survived and grew. Today, Lucille's hosts live jazz six nights a week, and may be better known for its jazz than for its impressive menu.
As Annie's grew, the eclectic nightclub Ella Guru's opened across the street, bringing an astonishing mix of country, rock and jazz. Few nights at Ella's were more memorable than when Sun Ra's Arkestra played. One of the most bizarre bands that's ever visited here, and one of the most entertaining, it may also have been one of the most musically significant. Mike Dotson says Sun Ra's big band successfully bridged the mainstream and the avant garde, making interesting music that was also entertaining. "He was a great innovator, influential and groundbreaking. He extended Ellington's orchestral work--even as Ellington was just doing his greatest hits over and over."
Sun Ra was also one of the most visible jazz artists in Knoxville for several years. Promoter Ashley Capps says that through a dozen appearances, some for two or three nights at a stretch, Sun Ra played Knoxville more than any other non-local act. Some say that before his 1993 death Ra was contemplating moving here; Capps says Ra seemed to feel some mystical connection to Knoxville, that he specifically believed he was descended from William Blount.
Capps recalls his astonishment, rounding a corner near his Gay Street office a few years ago, to see men wearing space suits on Blount Mansion's lawn. It was the filming of a Sun Ra video which Capps regrets he hasn't seen. (If anybody has a copy, we'd like to see it, too.)
Though Ra didn't move here, a prominent percussionist from his band, the nonpareil Samari Celestial, did, often playing for local audiences.
Donald Leaps In
This was the scene Donald Brown discovered when he decided to move from Boston to Knoxville. A pianist in the band of the legendary drummer Art Blakey (which had recorded some Brown compositions in its last years), Brown had passed through Knoxville in the early '80s. "Just looking at the place, I thought this was like redneck city. I didn't think I'd want to live here." When Jerry Coker called, he was making his way as a pianist with two albums to his credit, but was frustrated with his teaching post at Boston's Berkeley Conservatory and considering moving home to Memphis. After a longer visit eight years ago, he took the UT job.
"When I first moved here, I thought, Wow, Knoxville's getting much more jazz through than Memphis is. Every month or so I'd look up and there'd be somebody I knew. I thought, I don't even have to leave the city, I can still see some of the cats."
That's not quite as true since the closing of Ella Guru's in 1990, but Brown is still impressed with the traffic by way of other venues, like the Bijou's jazz series. And he loves Lucille's.
"At Lucille's you can play anything you want, experiment," he says. "The people who come there are open-minded. It's small, but some world-famous jazz clubs are just that size, maybe a little larger. Even the Village Vanguard can't be much bigger than Lucille's." Distracted audiences annoy some performers, but Brown thrives on them. "Those are my favorite places," he says, "where you can hear the glasses tinkling and the cash register ringing."
"I feel fortunate and blessed that they had some great musicians here," he says, mentioning Wynder, Scarlett, guitarist Mark Boling, Keith Brown. "Getting to play with musicians like that, when I do get to play with musicians in New York or Paris, I feel I haven't lost anything." He says his Knoxville years have been the most productive of his life.
Knoxvillians with only a passing acquaintance with jazz were startled a couple years ago to hear the pianist who'd played for free at local restaurants, taking requests from boozy patrons, featured for the full hour of the nationally popular public-radio show "Piano Jazz." Those who bought his records and read the trade publications weren't so surprised. National jazz critics had been calling Brown one of America's brightest talents for years.
Many observers credit Brown with the lion's share of Knoxville's recent mania for jazz. "I feel people are very supportive of my work, and jazz," Brown says. "It's a thrill to see it grow."
In his travels to world jazz events, Jerry Coker says Knoxville is known as far away as Monaco as the city where Donald Brown lives. "It's hard to determine when you live here," Coker says. "But he's very hot right now."
Brown became the crown jewel of UT's burgeoning jazz program, which Coker honestly insists is the best in the nation. He's partial, of course. But few UT faculty members are bold enough to make comparable claims about their own departments; few have reason to.
The Knoxville Mystique
"Once you start a jazz program, the students themselves become the salesmen," says Coker. "They need the money, and need the experience" of playing before live audiences in clubs. "It's a natural thing for an audience to respond." Coker thinks there's always been a large jazz audience here, but it's never been "polarized" by jazz venues.
Longtime observer Mike Dotson concurs. "You know what happens in Knoxville," he says. "People come here to go to school. They get out of UT, they're comfortable, they stay around. They go back to school, learn social work, teach Tai Chi, teach saxophone. They go into the magical culture of Knoxville that makes this such an interesting place." Most of Dotson's computer-consulting business is in Atlanta--but he makes it back to Knoxville every weekend he can stand to.
Dotson sees a demographic trend at work here. People born in the '40s and '50s--the Baby Boomers, essentially--are more accustomed to stepping out in the evening than previous generations were. As they slip through their 30s and 40s, Dotson thinks, they may lose the rock 'n' roll habit, but not necessarily the nightclubbing habit.
"People who are older may be getting tired of rowdy music," Dotson says. "Also, people associate jazz with sophistication. Knoxville's adult population tends to feel more urban--and more cosmopolitan--than its adult population of 20 or 30 years ago."
He calls Annie's/Lucille's "a figurehead, a catalyst" of Knoxville's awakening interest in jazz. Donald Brown, Wendell Werner, Bill Scarlett, and many other local stars are regulars. Werner, who has recently done the booking at Lucille's, is known for his perfectionism. But he knows over 35 musicians in Knoxville alone who are good enough to play Lucille's. "If I wanted to, I could book the rest of the year using Knoxville talent alone."
Lucille's reputation may be crossing regional borders. Werner says he was attending a Nashville performance of Les Miserables, talking to a drummer with the musical's traveling company. "As soon as he heard I played at Lucille's in Knoxville, he was suddenly impressed with me," Werner says.
Saxophonist David King calls Lucille's "The Promised Land. I like the bar, the people, the waitresses," says King, who at 28 is one of the younger performers on the scene. "People pay $20 to hear Donald Brown in New York," he says. "We pay $2 at Lucille's." He's ambivalent about his observation that "young hipsters are thinking it's cool to listen to jazz," but is sure trendiness can't be all bad.
King and his colleagues at the Disc Exchange say jazz sales are strong, especially bebop--and some progressive jazz records available only by mail order a few years ago now have their own section there.
Thriving After Five
One Lucille's regular is artist and singer Cynthia Markert, who hosts open-mike nights on Tuesdays. Her portraits of women, with striking faces in exotic clothes in dim light, have an unreality to them. But it's easy to conclude that she might be drawing some of this candle-lit species from life at Lucille's. They turn out even on a cover-charge weeknight; by midnight Tuesday there may be 50 customers in the small room, listening to piano jazz and torch songs. There's a lot of touching, cheek-kissing. If mainstream Knoxville might call them pretentious, it's not their concern.
Lucille's caters to a younger clientele, mostly under 45, mostly single. Though most of the performers who play regularly there have played at KMA too, Lucille's customers don't necessarily show up at the KMA shows; some make fun of them.
The Annie's/Lucille's phenomenon evolved slowly. The KMA's Alive After Five--and especially its subsequent success--took everybody by surprise. Conceived as a short-term promotional gimmick by KMA CEO Richard Ferrin in the summer of '93, under the guidance of personable WUOT disk jockey and jazz expert Marshall Stevens, Alive After Five caught fire and began generating heat of its own.
Some credit Stevens's personality through both Alive After Five and his evening jazz show for inspiring mainstream Knoxville's jazz jones. But after summer 1994, when WUOT suddenly fired Stevens, the jazz show he'd kindled blazed just as brightly. (The current MC is the unsubtle former dino-rock jock Colvin Idol.) Stevens moved away, but was recently spotted at an Alive After Five show.
Audiences are currently averaging 350 each Friday night, 40 Fridays a year. Sometimes that figure approaches 600, coming and going. Some shows have sold out; hopeful spectators had to wait in the lobby for others to leave. The KMA estimates that some two-thirds of a given audience is made up of KMA members, who get in free; but they also admit that quite a few KMA members pay their dues mainly because they want to get in free to Alive After Five.
It's important to appreciate just how weird that idea is. First, amplified music and plentiful alcoholic drinks in a controlled-environment museum of fine arts: you don't see that everywhere. But make that music bebop, a late-night genre if there ever was one, and play "Round Midnight" in broad daylight starting at about 5:30, before most of us have started thinking about supper, and you've got a true cultural freak on your hands. But it works.
There and almost nowhere else in town you'll see three or more races sitting beside each other. And if a Boomer demographic boosts attendance at other jazz shows, it's only barely relevant at AAF. At a recent show there was an old lady in a wheelchair, several toddlers, teenage girls, men in suits and gray whiskers, all enjoying themselves. Some come every single Friday and never get tired of it. Others, like a service veteran I spoke with who's now training to be a veterinarian, save up to come only two or three times a year.
Currently, a new crowd replaces that one to see the late-night musical jazz revue, "Ain't Misbehavin,'" whose director, pianist Werner, is another former Memphian who came to Knoxville to be part of UT's music program. That was 15 years ago. He stayed to perform. One of Knoxville's busiest musicians, he mounts musical revues at the KMA, performs at dozens of local functions and coordinates Lucille's live music lineup. He and his most frequent saxophone accomplice, Terry Schmidt, have a locally released CD. Werner intends to record a live album of all-original pieces at AAF this summer, potentially for national release.
The KMA gets queries about its unlikely success from other, bigger art museums around the country. The groundbreaking program caught the attention of the American Association of Museums, which is recommending the strategy in other cities.
Several musicians featured at Alive After Five have gone on to other forums. The Knoxville jazz recording event of 1995 was the release of Nancy Brennan Strange's album, Les Etoiles Mysterieuse.
Strange's background is in folk music and storytelling. A video she made a couple years ago got some rotation on national country TV. Her latest recording was produced by mandolinist/bluegrass rhino Don Cassell, who has often shared a country/folk stage with Strange. But this album is undeniably a jazz album, albeit soft jazz, featuring the talents of Brown (who did the arrangements) and Wynder (leading a horn section of seven saxophonists), as well as jazz guitarist Mark Boling and others.
It's the sort of collaboration between country and jazz professionals that would seem unlikely outside of Knox County. But to Strange, it seems natural. "Old-timey string-band music is a real improvisational kind of music," Strange says. "You do a break, and improvise. That's what jazz is, improvisation."
Not everything is looking up for jazz here, however. Conventional auditorium events at the Bijou and elsewhere sometimes see disappointing ticket sales. The future of the Jazz in the Park series is in question after some sparse turnouts at the free event in recent years. Several local bars, restaurants and coffee shops have experimented with jazz recently only to curtail it, allegedly because jazz audiences don't drink as much as rock 'n' roll audiences.
Several performers admire Ivory's, an upscale piano bar in a Bearden basement, as a perfect space for jazz, but audiences there can be oblivious. Greg Negbauer, a New York pianist-songwriter known for his subtly humorous lyrics, gets extravagant press from Chicago to Austin. But he was frustrated with his recent Ivory's show. Conversation was so loud that his lyrics were inaudible.
Pianist Werner, though he typically plays to a packed house, says Knoxville's audiences still don't reflect the level of talent here.
"There are a lot of things here that Knoxvillians don't even know about--although a number of other people around the country know about it. If they were actors--everybody knows David Keith's here. But if Donald Brown, or Samari, or Bill Scarlett walked into New York City today, they'd get a gig tonight."
And as good as it is, Werner knows that "Lucille's is the only place to hear jazz regularly in Knoxville." He thinks the city would be stronger with more nightclubs. Almost everybody, in fact, wishes there were still one of the caliber of the universally lamented Ella Guru's, bringing in major jazz acts in an intimate forum.
"I would like to see some jazz club along the vibe of Ella Guru's," says Brown. "That's something my students miss. There's nothing like seeing some of these guys live. Even if they just have jazz once a month, it's something to look forward to. I really miss that. But for a town this size, we're doing pretty good."
"Knoxville is a good jazz-lovin' town," says Rocky Wynder. "You've just got to have something to put out for them."
"You know, Knoxville is kind of a paradox," concludes saxman Scarlett, originally from Arkansas by way of LSU. "It can seem like a real redneck area, but there are all these people interested in jazz--comparatively speaking, a lot more than most towns. I don't know exactly what it is. But sometimes it amazes me."
Maybe it's just that old paradox that makes Knoxville a "good jazz-lovin' town." Wynton Marsalis, Donald Brown's former colleague in Art Blakey's band, loves to talk about jazz. All kinds of music, he says, have their place, representing one region or one age group or one social status. But only jazz is complex and sophisticated enough to embrace the whole of human experience. Or, he might add next time he's in town, only jazz can embrace the country/ blues/ classical/ rural/ urban/ redneck/ academic experience that's Knoxville.