Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Young Jazz Lives in Spartanburg, South Carolina

April 13, 2012 has been designated by the U.S. Council of Mayors "Jazz Day" and the Jazz Journalists Association is celebrating that fact by sponsoring the First JJA Jazz Blogathon. Anyone who writes, blogs, or tweets about jazz has been asked to contribute an article related to jazz in their local community. This ties in perfectly with the fact that I just got to witness a beautiful example of how jazz is moving the lives of so many young musicians in Spartanburg, SC.

Last Thursday, April 5, three student-based small combos from the University of South Carolina Upstate took over the local jazz club called Blues Boulevard and played excellent sets of material for the packed room. This kind of "real" gigging experience is a direct outcome of the emphasis on commercial music skills found at USC Upstate. Their music majors are not only trained to perform, but given guidance on how to manage a career and what to expect from performance venues typically found in jazz.

Blues Blvd. played the perfect host by allowing the local university groups a place to stretch their wings. The club surely enjoyed seeing so many bodies in the room and we all hope to see the collaboration repeated in the future.

USC Upstate Vocal Jazz Group directed by Dr. Tish Oney
The first ensemble of the evening was a recent addition to the program: a vocal jazz group under the direction of Dr. Tish Oney. The performance was their maiden voyage and offered a swinging set of cozy jazz-vocal harmonies and solid solo features. They started off with a smooth blues tune and backed it up with standards like "Cry Me A River," "Autumn Leaves," and even Gershwin's "I Got Rhythm." The climax of the vocal set was their smokin' take on the Jon Hendrick's tune, "Your My Centerpiece." Dr. Oney will be taking over a full-time, tenure track position at USC Upstate in the fall and what she has put together with this group in her first semester is a sign of many great things to come out of her presence on the campus.

Jazz Combo directed by Shannon Hoover
The second group of the evening was an all-instrumental combo that focused on funky grooves and hard-swinging bop. The quintet is led by stellar bassist Shannon Hoover who can be heard at gigs all over the region. He brings a seasoned professionalism to his students that is rare to find among university faculty. Highlights of their set included the under-performed "Minority," and a version of "Sissy Strut" that had heads throughout the room bobbing to the nasty groove. Although lead sheets were scattered among them, it was nice to see that at least a few of the better-prepared musicians in the group took the time to memorize the tunes and really bring out the best in their playing. Hoover has done good work with this young group and they are well worth taking the time to listen to. 

The closing act of the evening is called the "Commercial Music Combo," directed by guitarist and full-time faculty member Adam Knight. The group focuses on learning gig-ready material across various popular genres and this semester they've tackled the Beatles. Although the set list fell outside the jazz spectrum heard in the earlier groups, it's exciting to see a younger group of musicians having such a good time playing the classic music. Highlights definitely include "Come Together," "Don't Let Me Down," and their closer "Hey Jude." The guitarist in the group, John Gibson, wins the prize for bringing in the noisiest support group that never let his riffs go by unloved.
Commercial Music Combo directed by Adam Knight
This May will mark the first graduating class of Commercial Music majors from the program at USC Upstate and this night of music at Blues Boulevard bodes well for their prospects and for those of their classmates. Jazz is sometimes a tough sell in Spartanburg and a rare specialty for musicians of the twenty-something crowd. But, as seen and heard on this recent night, the local community has the opportunity to swing madly whenever they have the chance to hear music this good.

[On another topic, my Johnny Hartman biography has been typeset and is in the process of being indexed. We're still on schedule for an early summer release and a book reading/signing is in the works for July 10 in Spartanburg. More details to come.]

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