Featured Music: Wednesday, April 3, 2003
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Cowtown Jazz

You have essentially two options — and both are pretty.

By KEN SHIMAMOTO

Jazz has had a hard enough time finding a following in Fort Worth — this place isn’t called “Cowtown” without good reason. Long gone are the days of Dallas saxman Bill Tillman’s place on South Hulen and the old Jazz Café on Magnolia. To hear jazz in “Cowtown” — other than the polite, florid variety Johnny Case plays at Sardine’s — you have essentially two options: The Moon on Wednesday nights and the Black Dog Tavern on Sunday nights. Which gig you choose to see, or if you choose to see both, says a lot about ... you.

But there are signs of more jazz activity brewing in town. Drummer Eddie Dunlap, who played the very first Black Dog sessions five years ago with host and bandleader Michael Pellecchia, has been presenting monthly jazz concerts at Arts Fifth Avenue for a year now. Black Dog owner Tad Gaither has promised a non-Sunday show a month by free improvisers Ghostcar, and a couple of the regular Sunday night jammers — guitarist Keith Wingate and UNT One O’Clock Lab Band trumpeter Zack Heffley — have recently led combos on weeknights. Hardly enough to make Fort Worth a jazz mecca on a par with New York, Chicago, or L.A., but a sign that there’ll be more opportunities for aficionados to listen in Cowtown’s future.

The jazz scene is an incestuous one, with multitudes of connections to the local rock mob. Both the Black Dog and Moon sessions employ the nimble rhythm section of bassist Brandon Nelson and drummer Dave Karnes. Besides his jazz work, Karnes also kicks the traps for rockers like John Price, Tim Locke, and Collin Herring. Fleet-fingered guitarist Wingate, who’s also played with Case at Sardine’s and has a regular bossa nova gig with Eric Zukoski at Arlington’s Olé Mexican-Spanish Grill, uses the rock band Solomonic’s rhythm section in his trio. Recent Black Dog sit-ins have included guitarist Ron Geida from country-rockers Jasper Stone and Trent Talbert, the saxophonist from melodic metalheads Djugdish. Nathan Brown, currently fronting rockers Pretend King, occasionally spells his pal Karnes on drums at the Moon.

Which isn’t to imply that the scene is totally dominated by moonlighting rockers. Dallas tenorman Marchel Ivery was a special guest at the Black Dog’s fifth anniversary throwdown last fall. Both Leo Saenzes (father and son) of Latin Express have propelled their sounds into the Black Dog’s ceiling. Lately, blazing Kansas City saxophonist Kwazi Vann has been bringing his big Ben Webster tone and spiky Archie Shepp ideas to the Dog, where intimidating young bassist Bobby Deboo recently paid a visit. Local eminences like guitarist Bill Ham and trumpeter Leonard Belota have graced the Moon’s stage, along with flutist-trumpeter Chris White and vocalist Sonya Williams.

Practitioners of an under-appreciated and often-misunderstood art, jazz musicians have always faced a dilemma — whether to play for the crowd (such as it is) or for themselves. It’s easy to forget that jazz was once primarily social music — think of New Orleans jazz funerals or screaming big bands rocking seas of dancers. On one hand, familiar songs are easier on casual listeners’ ears and make it easier for these listeners to connect with the music (or do whatever else they came to do). More obscure and challenging material doesn’t provide listeners with the spark of recognition they get from well-worn standards, but it probably doesn’t otherwise affect their enjoyment. Yet popular songs are less challenging for musicians, which can lead to uninspired playing. The saving grace is that civilians can’t hear the mistakes a musician will often make when reaching for something that’s just a little beyond his grasp.

Both the Black Dog and the Moon’s jammers adhere to the time-honored formula of blowing sessions since the ’50s, performing a mixture of Tin Pan Alley chestnuts and compositions by historical innovators like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, and Wayne Shorter. The crew at the Black Dog generally sticks to more familiar material, while the unit at the Moon, which includes some of the same players, tends to play lesser-known tunes and take more chances of the “We’ve never tried this before, but ...” variety. These tendencies reflect the personalities of the two bandleaders.

Pellecchia’s a scholar of the music and an occasional jazz and business scribe who operates an online book and music emporium (www.moneyblows.com) when not presiding over the Black Dog evenings. He’ll occasionally sing a tune onstage — a risky move for any jazzman who doesn’t either sound like Louis Armstrong or look like Chet Baker — or tell a joke, which he usually follows with a demented cackle. He says he sticks to well-known tunes out of consideration for the musicians who sit in.

“When I first started playing jazz with people,” said Pellecchia, “I was one of those guys who couldn’t cut it, and that leaves some scars. Of course, some embarrassment comes with the territory.” (In fact, he’ll still occasionally squeak on his horn.) His goal, he says, is to create an atmosphere of “civilized conviviality” that won’t alienate the jammers. He adds that he and the regular bandmembers have set a goal of turning over their repertoire — “maybe by 80 percent” — this year. The group also hopes to expand its instrumentation to create more ensemble sounds and play more rehearsed material.

Berklee-educated Karnes, on the other hand, is an irrepressible musical jokester who’ll sometimes play the intro to “Cherokee” in true Native American style or put funk beats behind a venerable chestnut like “Softly as in a Morning Sunrise.” He once quelled an unruly heckler on an out-of-town rock gig with an on-mic admonition: “Hey,” Karnes said, “we’re working here, and you’re bothering us. Do I go to McDonald’s and knock the fries out of your hand when you’re working?” Inspired by the relentless swing and polyrhythmic thunder of African-American trap set masters like the three Joneses — “Papa” Jo, Philly Joe, and Elvin — Karnes admits to feeling “like an imposter” around black audiences, which only makes him swing harder.

The smaller and proportionally more musician-heavy crowds at the Moon allow Karnes’ and saxophonist David Williams’ “Dave and Daver” unit to take more risks than the band at the Black Dog. It’s a more intimate setting, well suited to acoustic acts, its gleaming glass veneer a sharp contrast with the Black Dog’s funky wood. “We want to see if [guest musicians] can speak the language,” said Karnes, “but also whether they have something to say about the subject under discussion.”

The standards of musicianship on both gigs are generally high enough to keep the tyros of tunelessness away, but occasionally you’ll witness an occurrence like the time someone at the Black Dog requested Coltrane’s “Giant Steps” and all the jammers deserted the bandstand, leaving only vibraphonist Joey Carter and the rhythm section to negotiate the tune’s humility-dealing avalanche of chord changes. “Some guys who can’t cut it still have something to say, so we try to give them a chance to say it,” said Pellecchia. “Then there are the guys who can’t cut it and have nothing to say; we try and get them out of there as quickly and painlessly as possible.”

While you’re unlikely to hear any music at either the Black Dog or the Moon that you couldn’t have heard back in 1966, that’s more a reflection of the current state of jazz than it is of the musicians’ preferences. Time was when jazz was about constant innovation. For its first 50 years, the medium seemed to reinvent itself every decade or so, as musicians explored the myriad possibilities of instrumentation, rhythm, and harmony, extending familiar musical forms with ever wilder and more sophisticated flights of invention.

But it’s been 30 years since jazz was truly progressive. The post-Coltrane generation of forward-looking jazzbos succeeded only in alienating the music lover with their solipsism and impenetrability. Since the 1980s, whenever major labels and mainstream media have seen fit to promote a jazz modernist — someone like Arthur Blythe, David Murray, Joe Henderson, or James Carter — it’s invariably been for work that fell staunchly “in the tradition.” Today, the task of carrying the jazz banner (ignoring cloyingly commercial smoove jazz, music-as-roomspray) has devolved onto a newer crop of hyper-competent musical technicians, most of them conservatory-trained, who strive to perfect their fluency within a fairly narrow set of conventions.

After all the brickbats that have been hurled at neo-cons like Wynton Marsalis, Stanley Crouch, and Ken Burns since Wynton took over the jazz franchise at NYC’s Lincoln Center and PBS aired Burns’ Jazz documentary series, the styles created by Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, et al. remain part of the rich tapestry of American music. So, folks should be able to hear the classic repertoire in a live setting, shouldn’t they?

In fact, if you still care to hear how many ways a musician can negotiate the chord changes to “My Favorite Things” or “Autumn Leaves,” you might even say that Pellecchia, Karnes, and their respective combos are performing a kind of public service, preserving the masterworks of classic African-American composers and improvisers in the same way that the Fort Worth Symphony does for all those dead Europeans.

And just like the symphony, jazz can be intimidating for the uninitiated listener. Seeing a novice at the Black Dog is like watching a Protestant Anglo at a pre-Vatican II Catholic Mass. They don’t know the prescribed rituals, and the cues are all in a foreign language. You can always spot the jazz newbies: Since they’re not familiar enough with the tunes to know when a chorus ends and don’t know the jazz argot well enough to hear when a jammer resolves a solo, they watch the older heads to see when to clap.

Ask any of the musicians on the set, though, and they’ll tell you it doesn’t matter to them whether you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fan or a neophyte who doesn’t even know the name of your favorite song in their book. They’re happy to have any audience they can in a scene that remains a very finite universe. But whether they’re tearing up a familiar standard with a stage full of jammers for the throngs at the Black Dog or stretching their synapses with a more obscure chart for the cozier crowd at the Moon, they’re conducting spirited dialogues in a language few can master.


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