Five months ago, the streets of Columbia were slick with a rare coating of snow and ice. During the day, most of the city’s schools, stores and offices had closed, including that of the typically stubborn Free Times.
As night approached, the conditions weren’t getting any better. While mostly navigable, the roadways were strewn with frozen patches that could easily sneak up on even the most cautious driver.
With snow heaped up on both sides, the path across the Gervais Street Bridge was barely wide enough to accommodate two lanes of traffic. It was, by any reasonable assessment, a night best spent at home.
And yet, despite the hazardous conditions, about 30 people showed up at West Columbia’s Conundrum Music Hall to see Tim Daisy, the marvelous and mercurial free jazz drummer from Chicago, dueting with Polish saxophonist Mikolaj Trzaska. It was a solid showing for such an adventurous performance held on such a treacherous night. The musicians justified the audience’s efforts: Daisy was a blur of intensity and conviction, blazing through more traditional patterns and going wild with experimental flurries in which he heaped cymbals atop his drum heads and smacked his snare with cloth and chains. Spurred on by Daisy’s vigor, Trzaska’s playing was both subtle and smoldering. It was an awe-inspiring display — but perhaps more impressive was the audience’s dedication, evidence of Columbia’s reliable audience for avant-garde jazz.
“I think many people are looking for something a little less average,” offers Ross Taylor, who has spent the past 14 years helping to carve out a local niche for these sounds, these days booking regular free jazz sets at Conundrum. “People actually see this as pretty exciting stuff.”
There are, of course, other forms of jazz. From more straightforward bop — think the early works of Miles Davis and John Coltrane — to smooth jazz and R&B-inflected crossovers, the genre’s broader spectrum is represented during gigs at various bars and restaurants in and around Columbia. But while the crowd for the city’s avant-garde offerings has grown slowly and consistently through the years, a surprising strength for a jazz scene in a small Southern market, the other segments of the community are going through their own ups and downs. Hunter-Gatherer, the longtime hub of a popular Thursday night jazz series, stopped hosting live music in May. And while other venues offer jazz, too, many musicians say the local scene is still lacking in the right kind of stages to push it further.
With Summer Sets, the Township Auditorium’s affordable local jazz series, returning on Tuesday with its second 2014 offering — an ensemble led by pianist Nick Brewer — Free Times took a closer look at Soda City jazz — its strengths, its weakness and where it might head in the not-too-distant future.
Finding the Room
Last month, at Speakeasy’s longstanding Saturday jazz night, Christopher Andrews played to a comfortably full room — a rare feat during the summer in Five Points. In truth, though, it wasn’t his renown as a saxophone player that drew in the crowd that night. Andrews doesn’t normally play at Speakeasy on Saturday. He was just filling in for a friend, fellow reed specialist Robert Gardiner, stepping in and leading the band that plays with the evening’s usual soloist. There aren’t many rooms like this one, willing to set aside one of its coveted weekend nights for a regular jazz gig. And so Andrews stepped in, hoping to turn on a few new ears onto his bright and limber melodies.
“We have really talented musicians here, but the scene is limited because of the places that offer live music that’s jazz,” he says. “Whether it be an R&B sound, smooth jazz, traditional swing or big band, there’s not enough places that can seriously house those bands and not enough business owners that are just patrons of the music in general. That’s what’s holding us back. The musicians are here. They’re all here and ready to play.”
The only other room in town that hosts regular jazz nights is Pearlz Upstairz, the swank lounge that resides atop the Vista oyster bar of the same name. Other bars and restaurants such as Pasta Fresca, Gervais & Vine, Travinia and the Carolina Strip Club host the odd ensemble, and Le Cafe Jazz, instigated by ailing local saxophonist and scene leader Skipp Pearson, brings the occasional gig to its location in Finlay Park, but these options aren’t frequent enough for local musicians to depend on them for work.
“I’m not sure if I’d describe it as healthy,” offers trumpeter Mark Rapp, speaking to the availability of jazz venues. A graduate of Winthrop University, he spent time in New Orleans, New York and Europe before moving to Columbia almost three years ago. He’s played with greats like Branford Marsalis and hit up legendary venues such as the Blue Note in New York and Yoshi’s in San Francisco. He’s excited about his current scene, but he laments the lack of suitable places to play.
“The venues that are able to support jazz music and pay a decent budget for the bands, it’s really Pearlz and Speakeasy,” Rapp continues. “Pearlz wins out in terms of money. But Speakeasy, I think, wins out in terms of general venue and audience.”
For 17 years, straight-ahead strands of swing and bop had one other reliable home. The downtown brewpub Hunter-Gatherer was once home to a Thursday jazz workshop started by Skipp Pearson. As of May, this tradition is no more, with the bar closing itself to live music. It’s a crushing blow to many local jazz lovers.
Those nights began with a proper set by a band of local veterans and then moved on to an informal jam session where less skilled players were free to take the stage and test their chops. It was — in the words of Mark Rouse, the trumpeter who led the workshops while Pearson receives treatments for bone cancer — a “breeding ground” for local talent.
Reggie Sullivan, a Columbia bassist who leads his own R&B-leaning band and has toured with big names like Joe Sample and The Jazz Crusaders, got his start at these Hunter-Gatherer sessions; Christopher Andrews, the saxophone player who now heads up the jazz program at Claflin University in Orangeburg, honed his chops there, as well.
Rouse is on the lookout for a new home for the workshop, but he hasn’t had any luck just yet. Rest assured, he isn’t letting it go.
“What’s missing is a place for folks to perform what they’ve been practicing,” he says. “You go into your closet, and you work on tunes. You work on melodies, and you work on improvisation. And improvisation is more like a conversation. Being able to communicate with players onstage is very important. You can practice scales. You can practice licks and all of that, but there’s nothing like sitting down and playing with someone. That spontaneity that happens onstage instantly is what jazz is all about.”
Those Hunter-Gatherer sets served as a link to one of the jazz scene’s key resources — the music students at the University of South Carolina, who frequently showed up to test their skills. With the jazz workshops gone, these players have lost an opportunity to get involved with the local scene.
Rouse, too, found his way into the jazz community by playing at Hunter-Gatherer. The insurance agent waited until the age of 43 to start playing seriously, and those nights at the pub were a key catalyst.
“It was a place to go and develop,” explains Luther Battiste, a local lawyer who hosts a Sunday jazz show on 92.1 The Palm. He was also a regular at Hunter-Gatherer, attending the workshops almost every week. “Skipp was very liberal about giving people a chance to develop and helping them to develop. And with Hunter-Gatherer gone, you don’t have that go-to place on Thursday nights, where everybody knows good musicians will come to visit, and people who really like music will come to visit.”
But Columbia’s jazz scene has long been an accessible one, even outside of those nights at Hunter-Gatherer. Several performers and fans around town applaud the willingness of bands to allow players in the audience to sit in for a spell. During Andrews’ set at Speakeasy, he brought up a drummer that he’d never even met to handle rhythms on one song. While timid, the drummer’s ambling skitters were proficient enough to carry the song to its conclusion, inspiration that may well lead him to go home and refine his technique.
“That drummer, I had no idea who he was,” Andrews offers, explaining that the dearth of venues and the camaraderie between the musicians makes such moments pretty commonplace. In his mind, it’s one of the few benefits to be reaped from the scene’s low-key nature. “But I still had that mentality, ‘Hey, let me see if you can play or not.’ It’s very, very open for new musicians.”
Meanwhile, the avant-garde sets, like the one delivered by Daisy and Trzaska back in February, have a reliable home at Conundrum in West Columbia. This year alone, Ross Taylor has brought Made to Break (featuring Daisy and famed saxophone player Ken Vandermark), monstrously versatile trombonist Jeb Bishop and two appearances by Jason Ajemian, who unites fever-dream art pop with aggressive jazz. Before Conundrum, Taylor booked his shows all over town — at bars like The Whig and Hunter-Gatherer, on campus at USC, at the 701 Whaley art gallery — but since the 99-capacity Conundrum opened in 2011, Taylor has housed most of his shows there. It’s a luxury he knows he’s lucky to have.
“It’s phenomenal because these other venues weren’t always available,” he says, adding that attendance has grown since moving his shows to a regular home at Conundrum. “I’m seeing new people at every show. It’s surprising. I’m meeting new people that I’ve never met before, and they’re like, ‘We’ve never been to a show here in town. We read about this. It sounded great.’ A lot of them, they come back and see another show. I think it has helped. You get your hardcore fans you can always count on, and then sometimes you get a little bonus material here and there.”
Taylor knows his crowd better than most music promoters. The library manager at USC mingles and chats at every show, and while he can come off a little gruff, brisk with his words and uncompromising in his opinions, his passion for this music is unrivaled. He keeps a mental note of most every new face he sees, hitting them up whenever he puts on a new show. As for the musicians, he’s hands-on with them, too, frequently hosting them at his house overnight and fixing them dinner before they perform. His hard work is a big reason why Columbia has become such a home for this music.
“I’ve heard a lot of these guys say they can’t get arrested in Atlanta, but they can come here and play to a packed house,” chuckles Woody Jones, a record slinger at Papa Jazz in Five Points who alternates weeks with Battiste as the host of The Palm’s Sunday jazz show. He says that unlike Conundrum, where these free-jazz greats play to a consistently full house, the musicians he talks with report lackluster attendance in Atlanta, Charleston and North Carolina spots like Asheville and Raleigh. Tim Daisy, he reports, has told him on more than one occasion that his two favorite towns to play are Montreal and Columbia.
“That is incredibly strange and incredibly cool,” Jones continues. “And I think that is a result of just people in this town sort of latching onto this stuff and championing it really early on and essentially cultivating an audience just over a period of years. It’s strange. It doesn’t make sense. But I’m glad.”
In addition to finding a space to play, local jazz musicians have to make it work financially. For saxophonist Andrews, balancing his art and his livelihood has become something of a struggle.
He typically plays at Pearlz, where he says his four-piece band usually receives about $400. But he also works with a few different variety acts, performing smooth jazz and R&B covers for weddings and other events, most of them taking place in and around Charleston. Playing saxophone at those gigs nets him about $300, triple his take from an average club date, a difference that affects Andrews more than most. As an adjunct professor, his day job only pays him by the credit hour, meaning his summer school course load will only pay him $3,600 — even though he works between 30 and 40 hours a week.
Other players are in better positions, but all of them have to weigh the public exposure of club dates against the bigger paycheck that comes from playing a wedding.
“The best musicians are in town, but they’re hired by the variety bands that are paying more to play ‘My Girl’ and ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ and stuff like that,” Andrews says. “You can’t put together a really awesome band on Saturday night because maybe your guitar player is playing ‘My Girl’ every Saturday. Or the best bass player in town is doing that kind of stuff.”
One thing that might help with this tension is a true listening room. Conundrum offers that kind of space across the river, ticketing its events and setting up chairs that all face the stage, but its brief flirtations with non-free jazz didn’t work out. But Rapp points to The Velvet Note — a listening room in the small town of Alpharetta, Georgia, that hosts a variety of touring bands — as proof that these spaces can work in unlikely places. One of his groups played the grand opening three years ago, and while the venue has struggled a bit, it remains a vibrant spot.
With Columbia positioned between larger cities like Charlotte and Atlanta, Rapp thinks such a room could make a go of it here. But more than that, he’s adamant that this kind of space is what the players here deserve.
“When I moved back, I was thinking initially, ‘Oh, I’m going to move back to New York right away,’” he recalls. “But as I was here and then started to go out and check out the scene and meet the musicians around town, I came to find out that the musicians here were very welcoming, very accepting, very cool. The scene here, while it’s smaller compared to the bigger cities, the musicians here, I would put them up against any guys in New Orleans, guys in New York. It’s just really, really top quality and accomplished musicians, just really fantastic. So we definitely have the musicianship in town.”
This wealth of talent is the main reason that Columbia jazz is, despite its impediments, also full of promise. With a parade of some of the world’s best avant-garde players stopping in across the river and a resilient cadre of local musicians plowing ahead in bars and eateries around town, it’s a scene that refuses to stagnate — even if it’s yet to truly take off.
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