"Why aren't there 5,000 people here?" gushed one middle-aged man on Preservation Pub's patio on a recent Tuesday night, paying close attention to the quintet on the Market Square stage. It's dubious whether 5,000 people could have improved the evening. The couple hundred fans weren't enough to constitute a Sundown-esque mob scene, but enough to show respect for the quintet on stage, an awfully fine jazz combo, startling to witness even though they've been playing free shows on the Square every Tuesday night in a summer-long series called (appropriately) Jazz on the Square.
Vance Thompson, the well-known trumpeter, plays and hosts the show in front of a set for Shakespeare on the Square. The able keyboardist is Keith Brown, his brother Kenny plays drums, and Clint Mullican plays bass. The other soloist is a relatively new jazz presence, Greg Tardy, one of the finest jazz saxophonists active in Knoxville today.
Jazz has suffered some blows in the last couple of years, especially in the tenor-saxophone department, with the deaths, too close together, of Bill Scarlett and Rocky Wynder, Knoxville's two busiest bebop saxophonists for the last half-century or so. Tardy, who has spent 16 years as a journeyman saxophonist in New York, first came to Knoxville about seven years ago to play on a Donald Brown record. He moved here a couple of years ago to take a job teaching sax in the University of Tennessee's jazz program. He plays with heart and intensity that can make your hair stand on end.
Tardy, Thompson, and the others swap solos, improvising in classic bebop style. What they play is mostly bebop, Charlie Parker, Dexter Gordon, occasionally skewing toward a little Herbie Hancock fusion, overall a mixture or classic jazz standards, contemporary pieces, and a few originals—Thompson, Tardy, and Keith Brown all do a little composing.
Thompson tells us how Jazz on the Square evolved. "It came out of a conversation with Taylor Coker, the bass player, trying to figure out a way to play some small-group jazz in a place that was conducive for listening," he says. They started it last year, with nothing but permission from the city to give it a try. Results were mixed. Their rudimentary amplification was less than ideal. They'd picked 7 p.m. as a start time, because in May, there were more people milling around the Square then. "But at the end of June and July, it was just miserable," Thompson says. Worse, they seemed to gather a crowd just as they were finishing.
This year, they've gotten some sponsorship, from Prestige Cleaners, which offered the musicians a modest stipend, and Stellar Vision & Sound, which supplies a professional-quality sound system. They also tried a different time, playing now from 8 to 10 p.m. "It's worked out," Thompson says. "It gets more crowded as it gets later and later."
Those who show up prepared with portable chairs may tilt a little toward the gray, and the male, but the general scene, including some rapt café tables along the sides, had no demographic. The hundreds who paused or tarried to hear another solo represented old, young, singles, couples, most of the major races. Hippies, preppies, and other musicians.
It's always interesting watching musicians witness music. A couple dozen people carrying guitar cases walked by, typical for an evening on Market Square. Many of them paused to listen, some in obvious awe, and you wonder whether, if just for that moment, they questioned their own choice of instrument.
Thompson and company will be doing the same thing every Tuesday night at 8 p.m. until the end of August, with a finale at the same venue by Thompson's other gig, the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, on Labor Day.