Last week, several hundred people were on hand to applaud the Marble City 5 as they played a two-hour jazz set on Market Square. Among the five are some familiar locals: trumpeter and organizer Vance Thompson, who also conducts the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra; piano whiz Keith Brown; Clint Mullican on bass; and Keith's brother, Kenneth Brown, on drums. The fellow with the saxophone wore a black-billed cap that makes him look a little revolutionary, perhaps a polite Bolshevik.
He's maybe not as familiar by sight as some of the others onstage, but judging by the crowds he draws around the world, and the prominent discs that have featured his saxophone, Greg Tardy is one of the most accomplished musicians in Knoxville.
He opens a tune with his own intro, a long, flowing thing that you wouldn't guess had anything to do with the old standard "Darn That Dream" until it leads directly into it. When Tardy solos, people innocently on their way to dinner, customers who had no intention of witnessing any live jazz tonight, stop and turn around.
He's workmanlike onstage, like a mechanic who knows what he's doing, connecting directly with the notes, but what he produces are long, transcendent runs, cascades of fluid sound. He blows his horn with his eyes closed tight, as if right now, sight might be a distraction. While playing, he exists mainly in the world of sound. While he's playing, so do we.
On a recent album cover, he's leaning out the window of a Manhattan skyscraper in a forest of skyscrapers, the Empire State Building in the background. A New Orleans native who first played clarinet, until the music of John Coltrane drew him to the sax, Tardy has lived and performed in St. Louis, Milwaukee, and New York. He's appeared on several dozen records, several of them his own but also some by major stars like Dave Douglas. A while back, The New York Times called him "one of the bright hopes" of jazz, as All ABout Jazz claimed he was "on track to help write the next chapter in jazz history."
And here he is.
When we caught up with him, he had a bit of a sniffle. "Sorry, I was just mowing the lawn, and got some pollen in my nose," he says. He's not complaining much. In New York, he says, it's only the "elite" jazz stars who have lawns at all. He moved his wife and kids here almost three years ago, when he accepted a job teaching saxophone and clarinet with the University of Tennessee's nationally prominent jazz program. (He knew Donald Brown. Everybody knows Donald Brown.) He had a little experience with Knoxville before; he's featured on the 2007 Knoxville Jazz Orchestra CD, Blues Man from Memphis.
"I love the city," he says of Knoxville. "What an opportunity to live here. I love the climate and the culture of Knoxville. I find that there's a lot of people that love jazz here," he says, mentioning the crowds that come to Knoxville Jazz Orchestra shows. Even with his resume, he says several local musicians have influenced him.
In conversation, he says "Praise God," at the same places where others say, "Cool." Several of his personal recordings are religious. In 2007, he recorded He Knows My Name. It's an all-instrumental album that you can listen to as a great jazz/blues recording; much of it could work as the soundtrack to a noir thriller. Unless you recognize a few old African-American hymns, you wouldn't guess it was a religious album.
Asked for a favorite recording, he says, "Believe it or not, my favorite is one that's not released yet." It's one called Hope, still a few months away from release. "I feel really good about that one," he says. "Of those that are available, Monuments, or The Hidden Light. They're not really for people that aren't hardcore jazz fans." Monuments, his 2011 album, he says, is "practically in your face, some high-energy musicians there. ... But writing-wise, I like The Hidden Light," an older album. C. Michal Bailey at allaboutjazz.com called it "as fine an example of Contemporary-Post Bop as a listener could hope for."
"I look at writing as just as important as learning to play," Tardy says. He admires noted trumpeter-composer Tom Harrell, with whom he's played. They'll perform together Sept. 3-4 at the Square Room.
He does have one complaint about Knoxville. "There's some world-class talent here in Knoxville, and more people that would listen, if they only knew how to find it. There are not enough places to play."
He plays in some other groups—with jazz violinist Barry Roseman, who plays occasional gigs at the Bistro (he's due to play there on May 25), Tardy plays clarinet, as he does with the Blackstick Four, an all-horn quartet led by sax veteran Tom Johnson, that's more likely to perform in formal settings (like, recently, the Clayton Center for the Arts in Maryville).
After a couple more Jazz on the Square gigs, Tardy takes off for one of the world's most surprising jazz hot spots, Qatar, as part of an international series associated with Jazz at Lincoln Center. He'll be there for most of June.
For now, for a couple of hours on Tuesday nights, he's playing Jazz on the Square. At that show last week, the audience was black and white, very old and very young. Jazz may never be Knoxville's most popular form of music, but it's the only music that can draw an audience like this.