Makin’ the Scene

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Posted August 27, 2009 in Feature Story

In just about a year’s span, the Inland Empire played host to what appeared to be more jazz festivals and gatherings than many other genres of music. From the I.E. Jazz and Rhythm & Blues Festival, The Ultimate Jazz Festival, Jazz at College Center and JazzFest West, to the annual Pomona Valley Juneteenth Jazz Festival, Jazz in the Pines, Inland Empire Jazz Festival and the Moreno Valley Summer Eves Jazz Series, one scan through the sizable list of such events would have the everyday music aficionado surmising that our locale, generally better known as the evergreen home to honky-tonks, heavy metal, Harleys and hip-hop, is fast becoming a destination for something seemingly out of the norm for the stereotypes of the area—that’s everything swing, bop, scat and improv.

 

But, if that’s the case, it may be news to some of the region’s active jazz scene performers. 

 

Longtime Upland-based fusion jazz guitarist and KSPC jazz radio DJ Tony Palkovic wasn’t aware of some of the jazz gatherings on the list we mentioned to him. The 26-year resident of the Inland Empire, who makes his living through performing primarily jazz and teaching music, seemed surprised about the aforementioned activity.

 

Veteran Redlands saxophonist Loren Weisbrod, who has performed regularly in the area for decades and currently runs with his nine-piece straight-ahead combo Hip Pocket, doesn’t see the local jazz scene as having the same popularity it held a decade earlier. And relative newcomer to the scene, Claremont guitarist Seth Greenberg, says it’s “heartening” to hear about these festivals; Greenberg performs in the region about twice weekly and is currently immersed in a doctoral program, penning his dissertation on a jazz musician. 

 

So, does such an influx of activity indicate that the jazz music scene is now stronger than ever in the Inland Empire? Or is it just a disconnected fluke? (Or perhaps something else all together?)

 

ONE HIP CAT

Based on conversations with these select local figures in the scene, there’s certainly a multitude of opinions about the state of affairs of jazz music in the Inland Empire. But there’s also some sense of agreement amongst our interviewees that visible pockets of jazz popularity exist and are prevalent in specific locations throughout the region. Cities like Claremont, Idyllwild, Redlands and Riverside all make appearances on the genre’s local radar. And these hotspots primarily fostered via established musicians and venues that have—sometimes unintentionally—taken charge in leading their respective jazz communities.

 

The Hip Kitty’s Steve Camera and Nancy Tessier would likely be considered a part of such localized leadership. One of the Inland Empire’s preeminent jazz hotspots (and, some might further, all of Southern California), the Claremont-based purpose-built jazz club has become a de facto central meeting point for jazz musicians and fans within its musical jurisdiction, hosting a variety of live entertainment (predominantly jazz-related) five nights a week. Tessier, who founded the venue nearly three years ago after learning that the city of Claremont was seeking a jazz room, has kept her doors open with the assistance of entertainment director Camera, who has been deputized with the primary task of sourcing and booking as much talent as possible.

 

LOCALS ONLY

Originally a club DJ in the late ’80s and early ’90s, Camera now spends his time seeking the latest and greatest live performers, receiving scores of emails and demo packages sent to the club each month. “I try to listen to them and check out their websites in the order that I receive them. Once in a while I’ll look at what the other clubs are doing, but for the most part I try not to look at what they’ve done in the past. To me, it’s all about how they sound…If they’re local, then that’s a plus.”

 

Catering to a wide demographic and an eclectic clientele, Camera tries to book all varieties of jazz and estimates that at least a quarter of his bookings consist of local artists, such as The Quintet Offensive, Geno and the Standards and Shawn Kirchner. It’s a good move in strengthening the vicinity’s ties to jazz, especially since that’s one of the venue’s goals, according to owner Tessier.

 

“We focus mainly on a 20-mile radius from here,” she says. “We do get a lot of customers from Riverside or Redlands. I’m trying to get customers from that area—more of the I.E.—than I would Orange County or L.A.”

 

THE PLACE TO BE

The Hip Kitty isn’t the only spot preferred by area jazz fans and musicians. Palkovic strongly trumpets Mario’s Place in Riverside, calling it a “gem for the Inland Empire.”

 

“They’re great over there, it’s like a home for me,” he says. “I’ve been playing there for years. They know what’s going on with music. So it’s one of those places where it’s a pleasure to go there, and they understand what’s up. But there’re not too many places like that.” (Palkovic will be performing at the venue on Sept. 18.)

 

And Weisbrod speaks highly of his hometown stomp, Redlands wine and dine spot Time in a Bottle, which he says is an example of what a musician would like to see in a venue. “They’re very interested in having straight-ahead jazz,” he notes. “They understand that a lot of these jazz musicians do this for a living. They understand that a $20 or $40 gig doesn’t really inspire musicians to bang down the door.”

 

But, are there enough fans of jazz in the Inland Empire to keep them inspired enough to bang down doors of local venues, too? 

 

You might be surprised. Take the long-running Jazz in the Pines event, which is now on its 16th year in Idyllwild—the attendance figures are nothing to sneeze at. According to Executive Producer Jeff Hocker, an estimated 5,000 attendees are anticipated to arrive this weekend in the sleepy mountainous arts community—which happens to be about the same as previous years (which have included household jazz names like Dave Koz, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and Lee Ritenour). And there’s the consistency of locations like AlleyKat Jazz in Rialto and Ontario’s Jazz Cafe, which has been hosting weekend jazz events for mature audiences (35 and older) for several years now, plus a multitude of other area clubs, restaurants and lounges that have blocked out a few nights for jazz music each month.

 

NO EMPTY CHAIRS HERE

Still, for Tessier, she says that attracting enough customers is part of the challenge as a jazz club owner. But, if you ask around, she must be doing something right, based on some quick observations.

 

“All I can say is, for example, when I’m performing at the College Center [Claremont shopping center that hosts outdoor jazz events] or at the Hip Kitty, there’s never been an instance where it’s been poorly attended,” says Greenberg. “So, if that’s any indication, I’d say that there’re definitely people in this area of Claremont that are certainly fans of jazz. Otherwise, I’d be playing to a lot of empty chairs.”

 

While Greenberg and others have found recent success with local fans, it’s also often important to offer some context, in an effort to compare the current jazz scene with previous local dealings in the genre. Greenberg, who had transplanted himself in Claremont from Philadelphia in 2003, seems rather optimistic about today’s affairs.

 

“Specifically around this area, it didn’t strike me as there was all that much happening when I first got out here,” he says. “There certainly wasn’t The Hip Kitty, that wasn’t around. I don’t even think the Sunday series that they had at the College Center even was going on at that point. And what I ended up just doing was presenting demos to places that featured music, but didn’t necessarily book jazz exclusively . . . I’d say that between the point of which I’ve arrived here and now, the jazz scene’s got significantly better in terms of places to play and different venues offering jazz on a fairly regular basis.”

 

GETTING‘ HOT IN THE ’90s

However, some remember better days of jazz in the Inland Empire. Weisbrod—who came to the area in 1963—recalls eras of jazz activity that trump today’s offerings, with venues attracting heavy hitters from much larger scenes.  For example, he says that the late ’70s found schools like the University of Redlands consistently hosting concerts with noted jazz celebs, sporting high-profile bills that even included jazz drumming greats Louie Bellson and Buddy Rich’s big bands together in concert in the chapel. 

 

“The most active jazz scene that Redlands—and probably the Inland Empire—had was probably in the mid-1990s,” he says. “Jazz ‘n’ Java at the Train Depot in Redlands was packed almost every night. Not only did the local musicians like myself have an opportunity to play and develop creatively, but the place grew in popularity such that they were able to afford to bring out some pretty heavy musicians from Los Angeles. It was a good vibe.”

 

Weisbrod recalls the coffee houses, scattered across local cities, with combos packing places out. It all lasted until the late ’90s, he says, when, somewhat inexplicably, “all of a sudden, it just died. The place just dried up.”

 

Palkovic—who is currently in the midst of recording a new album, working with top-notch players including legendary organist Brian Auger, bassist Bunny Brunel, local notable Baba Elefante and drummer Kofi Baker—has a take that straddles the aforementioned views.

 

“To me it’s the same as it’s always been since I got here in the ’80s,” he says. “It’s never changed. And again that’s just because I’ve become aware of this and have accepted that. For me, it’s fun to go out and play locally, but my adjustment has been that I’ve realized I’ll just record, make my music, get it out there with my albums and teach music. I haven’t seen much of a change at all.”

 

THE SHAPE OF JAZZ TO COME

Of course, change may never arrive if the community doesn’t stick together. (And, perhaps, if it doesn’t shake itself from the shadow of its larger siblings, namely Los Angeles.)

 

“The Inland Empire has a long way to go before it’s going to touch L.A. proper or probably even Orange County as far as venues and options for listeners to go hear jazz,” says Weisbrod. “And that’s why, honestly, it’s important for people who want to hear jazz in the area, they need to come out and support the venues. They’ve got to do that because obviously if they don’t then what incentive is there for venues to continue to present the music?”

 

With the incentives that have already dried up in past years, Weisbrod has seen some local jazz musicians that flatly gave up. “They just threw in the towel and they were dealing with restaurants and clubs that didn’t want to pay anything and that it was an inconvenience to have a band,” he says. “It’s like someone said, ‘Let’s have jazz!’ These guys came in, it was a disaster and there was no bread. It’s better than that now, I think.”

 

And, of course, better conditions are necessary in ensuring the future of the genre for the locale—particularly in the live arena. “I think that just with any type of music, the only thing that keeps it vital is that it’s not only performed, but that there’s also an audience that’s willing to spend their time and possibly money to go out and actually participate in that,” says Greenberg. “So, [that way] the music doesn’t become something that would be encased in a glass enclosure in the Smithsonian Institute. ‘Oh, look at this—this is jazz!’”

 

All That Jazz

Still not enough jazz for you? Here’s a sampling of some of the hip shows coming up at your local neighborhood venues. May you bebop the night away.

 

ALLEY KAT JAZZ LOUNGE

Sat Chaffey Group. 8pm. 134 S. Riverside Ave., Rialto, (909) 875-5777, www.alleykatjazz.com.

 

HIP KITTY JAZZ Sat The Tim Gill All Stars. 8PM. Sun Refugio Jazz Quartet. 8PM. 502 W. First St., Claremont, www.hipkittyjazz.com.

 

IDYLLWILD JAZZ IN THE PINES Sat NAJA; Charles McPherson; Graham Dechter Quartet; Mindi Abair; Najite Olokun Prophesy; Andy Fraga Jr. Quartet; Patrick Tuzzolino; Harry Pickens; Peter Sprague String Consort; Allison Adams Tucker; FLO; Greg Jones; Chuck Alvarez; Change Required. 10:30AM. Sun Firm Soundation: Gospel Group; Seahawk Mojo; Dan St. Marseille; Yve Evans and Company; Sheila E., Pete Escovedo, & the E. Family Project; Henry Franklin; Harry Pickens; Straightjackets; Joni Mitchell Band; Mike Rider & the M80’s; Kharma Dogs; Skeleton Crew; Greg Jones; Ruby & the Redhots; Change Required 10:30AM. 52500 Temecula Drive, Idyllwild, (951) 500-4090; www.idyllwildjazz.com.

 

JAZZ AT COLLEGE CENTER Sun Seth Greenberg Trio. 2PM. 665 E. Foothill Blvd., Claremont; www.jazzatcollegecenter.com.

 

THE JAZZ CAFE. Fri-Sat Derrick Edmonson. 7PM. 1133 W. 6th St., Ontario, (909) 391-9119; www.thejazzcafe.org. Shows: 35+.

 

MARIO’S PLACE Fri Cross-Effect. 10PM. Sat Jazz Junkies. 10PM. 3646 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7755; www.mariosplace.com.

 

TIME IN A BOTTLE. Fri Harold Mason, Sherry Williams, Larry Flahive, Jim De Julio. 8PM. $10. Sat Phil Henry. 8PM. 344 Orange St., Redlands, (909) 307-9463; www.timeinabottlewine.com 


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