At this time in the Boston jazz scene, there are no ongoing spaces for big bands and, predictably, the number of such ensembles has shrunk.
By Steve Provizer
On June 7th, it was nice to sit back at the Ryles Jazz Club and bask in the sounds of a swinging 19-piece big band. But there was also a feeling, hard to shake, that there were tectonic movements afoot below the surface, that I was witnessing a shift in the DNA of Boston jazz. Still, on the bandstand, a mighty roar was heard, so, let’s talk first about the music.
Ryles was packed: on the stage, the dance floor, and in the seats. A serious buzz in the air was present from the beginning, when the band kicked the show off with a hard swinging blues. The troupe’s arrangements all came from the pen of leader/writer/trumpeter Greg Hopkins, a mainstay on the scene since the ’70s. Most of the tunes were originals, with a few standards. Hopkins’ compositions included “This One’s For Brownie,” a tribute to Clifford Brown, “The Soothsayer,” written when Obama was elected, “Nightfall,” and “Okabongo, Jewel of the Kalahari.” Standards included “In a Sentimental Mood,” “Spring is Here,” and “Body and Soul.”
The centerpiece of the night was Hopkins’ composition “The Dream Catcher,” penned in honor of the closing of Ryles (on June 30). Written in five parts, it’s an ambitious work that gave me a feeling of moving between clearness and blurriness. Taken as a whole, Hopkins’ arrangements use pretty much every compositional device you can think of; this tune was a concentrated dose of this approach. Reed players double on a range of horns to expand the tonal scale, including moving to bass and alto clarinets, four clarinets and multiple flutes. Individuals, duet pairings, and sections solo, sometimes with chord changes, sometimes free, against varied backgrounds. There are shifting meters, interplay between sections and ostinati. The band had one rehearsal to pull it all together — and under Hopkins’ experienced leadership, it did.
Hopkins is as active a leader as I’ve even seen. Throughout the night, he picks up and puts down his trumpet and fluegelhorn for solos and joins the trumpets in sectional playing. Sometimes he wanders through the orchestra, demonstrating to a section background riffs that he wants them to play. He conducts effectively, occasionally with a near ferocious energy, the same way he plays the cowbell or beats time with his baton on a music stand. He’s a guy who clearly loves his work.
The band is made up of skilled pros who can play the most complex lines in synch and in tune. All the soloists were convincing: I would single out for especially fine work tenor player Rick DiMuzio, trombonists Jeff Galindo and Max Acree, and guitarist Tim Miller.
This ode to the music brings us to the “tectonic shift” I mentioned earlier. First and most obviously, the concert was at Ryles. Which, as noted in a previous article, is closing at the end of June. As Hopkins noted, he had played at Ryles in various sized groups hundreds of times since the mid-’70’s. The bittersweet vibes were palpable.
At this time in the Boston jazz scene, there are no ongoing spaces for big bands and, predictably, the number of such ensembles has shrunk. An event like this one is rare. and what payment the band members pick up is probably just enough to cover the bar tab. I only know some of the musicians in the Hopkins band, but it’s fair to say that the chief income source for most of these players is teaching. Early on in a career this might mean going to houses to teach, then setting up a studio in the musician’s home, eventually working at a local music store or adult ed program, or working part or full time in a music school. Hopkins has been teaching at Berklee College of Music since 1974.
The future for jazz looks challenging, particularly as it is overtaken by (or absorbed) into hip hop, R&B or pop. Playing-gigs as well as teaching-gigs may become harder to come by. On the other hand, Berklee College of Music seems to be an agile institution, constantly making adjustments in its outreach, going outside the US to draw students, and updating its curriculum to include teaching digital technology and recording in order to reach young people who may have little knowledge of or interest in jazz.
Then, there was the fact that there was a packed house at Ryles. Good — yes, but this kind of excitement about hearing a home-grown group has become rare. Notably, the sets were at 9 and 11 p.m.. This was once the norm but, in recent years, the shows have been starting earlier and earlier — often at 7:30, and there may only be one set. These changes are doubtless a response to the aging of the jazz audience. And indeed, at this concert, the majority of the crowd left after the first set.
Then, there’s the question of the demographics of the performers. First of all, in an issue noted in a recent Arts Fuse commentary by Clea Simon about the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, there was a noticeable lack of women in the Hopkins big band. Of the nineteen, there were only two. Also, there were few musicians of color. Only one player seemed to be non-caucasian. Let me be clear, I absolutely don’t mean to imply any racist intent on anyone’s part. What I’m saying is that, in Boston, jazz big bands are like bubbles in time. Is there not a responsibility among artists to reflect the social/political/racial currents of the time?
Yes, this is a rather downbeat analysis. But I’ve become used to going to so many badly attended jazz concerts that, ironically, the heightened atmosphere of this concert at Ryles ended up clouding my normally rose-colored glasses. My eyes were sicklied o’er with the pale cast of thought. My repressed “if-only’s” rose to the surface.
Part of the job of the jazz community is to make sure listeners of all backgrounds know about concerts, to make the music appealing to as broad an audience as possible. This raises issues of self-reflection: leaders and organizers should understand that gender and racial inclusion matters. Turning away from that responsibility only strengthens the walls that are already separating the music from potential audiences. And jazz needs more packed rooms.
Big Band Personnel: Scott deOgburn, trumpet; Jeff Galindo, trombone; Ilona Kudina, flute; Christian Marrero, trumpet; Max Acree, trombone; Allan Chase, alto saxophone; Don Gorder, trumpet; Jeff Hoyer, trombone; Lihi Haruvi, alto saxophone; Dan Rosenthal, trumpet; Peter Cirelli, bass trombone; Rick DiMuzio, tenor saxophone; Greg Hopkins, leader, trumpet; Bob Patton, tenor saxophone; Ben Whiting, baritone saxophone, bass clarinet; Doug Johnson, piano; John Lockwood, bass; Bob Tamagni, drums, Tim Miller, guitar.
Steve Provizer is a jazz brass player and vocalist, leads a band called Skylight and plays with the Leap of Faith Orchestra. He has a radio show Thursdays at 5 p.m. on WZBC, 90.3 FM and has been blogging about jazz since 2010.