Jazz is elevator music, and there’s none to listen to anyway.
Those are two of the strongest stereotypes local jazz musicians fight when trying to find ears for their increasingly diverse offerings. With Kenny G the farthest thing from their minds, artists are creating a vital, progressive jazz scene in bars, concert halls and festivals.
But it’s still a struggle. “It’s not America’s most popular music form, as it used to be. It used to be dance-oriented. When it wasn’t, people lost connection with it,” said Mark Mitchell, chair of the Norman Performing Arts Studio’s jazz committee. “While there are still opportunities, I don’t think people know about them.”
One takes place every Monday at the Prohibition Room, 1112 N.W. 23rd. The Gold Dome’s “restaurant, lounge and whisky bar” is pretty much the antithesis of smooth jazz, and so are the musicians who improvise at its weekly jazz jam.
“We have a hip, young vibe that breeds progressive thought,” said vocalist Cami Stinson. “It’s a great opportunity to hear great modern stuff. It’s upbeat. It’s not boring.”
The setup is similar every time: A house band of drums, bass and either a keyboard or guitar begins the night with a set. Then the jam opens up to other instrumentalists, who can join the group onstage. It takes a considerable level of skill, however.
“They’re all on the cusp of what’s pushing the scene around here,” Stinson said. “These are all high-skill-level players. Whatever they play, they’re really impressive.”
While some featured talents — trumpet, trombone, drums — are standards, some of the more unusual elements appearing in the jazz jams have included raps, tap dancing and vibraphone.
“There’s a lot of energy,” Stinson said. “Some people dance. Some people clap after solos.”
There’s clapping after solos at the PAS’ “Sunday Jazz at the Depot” annual series, although most likely less dancing.
When it wasn’t danceoriented, people lost connection with it.
“It’s a great opportunity to hear highquality jazz in a music-centric environment ... a contrast to catching jazz at a club,” Mitchell said. “We’re a concert venue, with an attentive audience.”
The series takes place at the Norman Santa Fe Depot, 200 S. Jones. Eight shows comprise its current season, featuring acts from the piano-led jazz quartet of Dennis Borycki this Sunday to Tulsa’s jazz/R&B/pop act What’s That on May 15, and a drum-led closer on June 12.
“We strive for variety,” Mitchell said.
“We’d like to see more young people come out. It may be their first exposure to it, but we’d like to be there for them.”
The organizers of Norman’s Jazz in June festival don’t have a hard time getting young people to come out.
“We get a lot of high school and junior high kids,” said Jim Johnson, the event’s program chair. “There’s a constant stream of kids, and while it’s a social event, I see kids dancing and digging on the music.”
That’s not surprising, given the atmosphere the longtime three-day festival creates. Each night is over by 11 p.m., but what the festival eschews in length, it makes up for in atmosphere.
“It’s not Bonnaroo or Wakarusa,” Johnson said. “It’s a family environment. It’s a big community block party for music.”
The goal is to introduce the approximate 32,000 annual attendees to local and national jazz acts, which will include Latin jazz artist Poncho Sanchez, the 145th Army Big Band and Jeremy Thomas Quartet this summer, slated for June 23-25.
“We want to inform people what jazz is,” Johnson said. “If you’re not following any particular genre, you’ll have a preconceived notion of it, and you’ll probably be right. But you’ll miss a lot of the spark. We try to bring that to the forefront.”