Miami Herald

These cats have a plan for Miami's jazz scene

Sun, Jul. 13, 2008 By Daniel Chang

With a jazz series to debut in the fall and plans to open a jazz club on site this year, the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts is embarking on the cultural equivalent of a jazz solo: exploring new rhythmic and melodic paths, not knowing where they will lead but confident that the outcome will be one of creative unity.

Miami has seen this before. Individual efforts to ignite the city's jazz scene have sometimes ended in silence, with a closed nightclub, or failed to leave a lasting impact beyond a once-a-year concert or festival.

To be sure, Miami has a budding jazz scene, with a dedicated jazz radio station (WDNA-FM 88.9), vibrant programs in local colleges and universities and a loyal audience that turns out for performances at nightclubs, churches, bandshells and just about anywhere the music is performed.

But the Arsht Center is aiming for the moon.

Specifically, it wants Miami to forge its place within the jazz canon, to inspire a musical movement that would unite Miami and jazz inextricably, the way it is forever linked in New Orleans, New York and Chicago.

"I feel the pieces are in place right now in South Florida," says Larry Rosen, who is producing the Arsht Center's six-month concert series, Jazz Roots, which begins in November and will be paired with an educational initiative through Miami-Dade County Public Schools.

Jazz Roots, Rosen says, will explore the music's multicultural metamorphosis -- from the subgenres of ragtime, swing, Dixieland and bebop to Afro-Cuban and Brazilian jazz, fusion and "straight ahead" jazz.

The series also aims to unite Miami's immigrant cultures through a common musical denominator: the drum. By tapping that common denominator, Rosen hopes Jazz Roots -- and maybe later the jazz club at the Arsht Center -- will create opportunities for musicians to launch a movement in Miami.

"If you take any city where jazz has become successful, there's some root in the community for why it has become successful," says Rosen, a Fisher Island resident who has produced dozens of jazz albums and the PBS TV series Legends of Jazz and also launched a jazz record label, GRP Records.

"You need to have a city that's in a growth state, which this certainly is, with many permanent residents, and not just a tourist city," he says. "You need to have the multiple cultures that bring the pieces together. You need the elements of the music itself being married here in some form or other -- a marriage of the cultures of American black-rooted music and Latin roots . . . and all the harmonic aspects of Latin and Caribbean music.

"That's all melding here."


Shelton "Shelly" Berg, dean of the University of Miami's Frost School of Music and a jazz pianist, performs at clubs and churches in Miami Beach and Coral Gables on occasion. In the year since he arrived from the University of Southern California, Berg says he has seen the ingredients to whip up a wicked brew of jazz music.

He cites the prominent role of performing arts centers in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties and a smattering of clubs and other venues that present occasional jazz concerts.

With various Latin and world influences, "there's an opportunity for the Miami jazz scene to make its own statement, which it sort of hasn't done yet," he says, adding that the factor that often polarizes Miami -- its ethnic mix -- also harbors the potential for musical innovation.

"Jazz originally was the result of various cultures mixing and being fused together," he says, "and there's been no other environment quite like New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century, other than Miami at the turn of the 21st century."


One important difference, though, is that contemporary Miami, unlike early 20th century New Orleans, is not seething with live music clubs. Many dreamers have made the effort to establish full-time jazz clubs in South Florida, with scant success.

Cuban trumpeter and Miami resident Arturo Sandoval, who was recently negotiating to lend his name and curatorial expertise to a jazz club at the Arsht Center, operated a club at the Deauville Beach Resort in Miami Beach for almost two years before closing in March.

The upstairs cabaret at Van Dyke Cafe on Lincoln Road recently switched from a jazz-only format to include world music, R&B and other genres. "By opening up to other genres, we're able to help pay for some of the jazz," says Randy Singer, music director for Van Dyke Cafe and a jazz harmonica player and vocalist.

Singer, who also books jazz performers at the Loews Hotel South Beach on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, says he's not aware of any jazz-only clubs in Miami. And he's not convinced such an operation could survive. "I just don't think the community down here has the attention span," he says. "It's so beautiful outside every day. Natural entertainment is in the air. You just walk in the street."

Singer also detects a pervasive self-absorption among South Florida audiences that, he says, inhibits the intense focus that jazz often demands. "It's hard to keep people entertained," he says. 'Everyone wants to be the entertainer. It's kind of the `me' generation out there."

But Sandoval is convinced that there is a committed jazz audience in South Florida -- and, just as important, a good number of accomplished performers. "There's an audience," he says. "It's very educated, very well-informed, very loyal overall, that respects the music, that knows the stories of its musicians."

Though Sandoval's defunct Miami Beach club failed to draw the consistent audiences it needed for commercial success, the musician says its closure was due more to the location and lack of parking than a dearth of audience. "I'm going to die thinking that this city needs a decent jazz club that will be a marquee for all those artists who have no other place to perform here," he says.

Bruce Miller, a Miami resident and jazz fan, has a preferred way to indulge his musical hobby, and it usually doesn't involve going to a performing arts center or nightclub.

"I have a 400-disc CD changer, and I have a beautiful backyard, and I get together with friends and cocktails, and we listen to jazz," says Miller, 56. Still, Miller says he would likely visit a jazz club at a central location with easy parking and none of the attitude he encounters on South Beach. "It would have to have ease to get there and ease to get out of there and all of that sort of thing," he says. "I like the idea of having it like a restaurant kind of atmosphere, where you could order something light or maybe a drink or something like that."


One measure of South Florida's jazz interest is WDNA 88.9 FM, which bills itself as a "serious jazz" station, though it also airs weekly programs dedicated to reggae and other genres.

Howard Duperly, director of sales and marketing, says the station draws about 75,000 listeners a week. Arbitron, the radio ratings service, estimates the station's audience at closer to 40,000 a week, Duperly says. What's more, he says, WDNA draws listeners from as far away as Moscow, London and Toronto through its webcasts.

"We here in Miami are seeing increased enthusiasm" for jazz, he says. "In our opinion, we've only started to scratch the surface."

If live jazz music hasn't made a big splash in South Florida yet, says UM's Berg, then it's not the fault of the audiences or even the presenters.

'I don't want anybody to think of any particular kind of music as medicine, like, `You have to take your castor oil and your jazz and your symphony because it's good for you.' In truth, it's up to the musicians to thrill audiences," he says.

"If people give it a chance . . . there will be something in jazz that will absolutely thrill the listener. I don't care who the listener is."

Michael Fagien, publisher of the monthly magazine Jazziz and a partner in Jazziz Bistro at the Seminole Paradise entertainment complex in Hollywood, says music alone is not enough to make a jazz club viable.

"You have to create an environment that appeals to people in other ways than jazz," he says.

A radiologist by vocation and a jazz entrepreneur by avocation, Fagien likens the task of marketing jazz to Starbucks' efforts to popularize coffee drinking -- not through the drink itself, but "by having brick-and-mortar venues that allow people to walk in and, through exploration and discovery and community, do something that they've never done before."

For enthusiasts such as UM Music School dean Berg, jazz is about discovery and the anticipation and thrill that comes with it.

"If you think about a jazz performance," Berg says, "it takes a piece of music that has intrinsically something to say and then for the next several minutes it explores what that intrinsic message is through the lens of the performers in a way that -- if it's done right -- it resonates with the audience, and they all take a journey together.

"Classical music can do that but in a way that's predetermined. Only jazz does it in a way that you discover as you go along."

For the Arsht Center and South Florida jazz fans, that journey is about to begin again.

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