By Lisa Provence
Most people alive today never had a chance to see John Coltrane perform his 1964 masterpiece, “A Love Supreme.” Next best thing: tenor saxophonist Charles Owens and local musicians playing the Coltrane classic in UVA’s Victorian Gothic Brooks Hall.
What about a big band celebrating Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday? That show, by the 18-piece Miho Hazama Big Band was another gobsmacking performance.
If you’re a jazz-lover in Charlottesville, you’re in luck.
Both shows were among the 150 or so performances the Charlottesville Jazz Society has put on since its inception in 2005.
Earlier this year, Yale News asked about America’s original artform: Is jazz dead? But Charlottesville has a surprisingly rich scene, thanks to the efforts of the jazz society, founded by a small group of devotees who wanted to hear more of the genre in town.
Judging from the society’s calendar, it’s possible to see a live performance almost every night of the week.
Gary Funston is a board member who tirelessly organizes shows. His favorite?
“The most recent one is my favorite,” which, when he spoke to C-VILLE, was the Matthew Shipp Trio. “Spectacular,” he says, and Downbeat Magazine backs him up, calling Shipp “the connection between the past, present, and future for jazz heads of all ages.”
Despite the nonprofit’s shoestring budget, it’s getting easier to attract musicians to Charlottesville. “Almost too easy,” Funston says. “Everybody wants to play here, even if it’s not a big crowd.”
And getting an audience can be a problem, with shows like the Hazama Big Band sparsely attended at the spacious Unity of Charlottesville church.
Regardless, the society continues to make magic with a budget that’s never topped $20,000, 75 paid supporters (disclosure: this writer is a member), and a free newsletter with 1,000 subscribers. “We lost money all spring until Matthew Shipp,” says Funston.
The society partners with WTJU, and sponsors jazz ed in schools and with the George Melvin Education Fund.
Finding a place to perform is the hardest part—especially if a piano is needed. Board members have to set up and take down chairs. Churches are often available, but the decor isn’t necessarily jazzy.
“I hope people appreciate the different venues,” says Funston, “but I still wish we had a jazz club.”
In February, Owens and electric bassist Andrew Randazzo teamed up for some big band at the Southern. Last summer, Hungarian jazz played in the second floor of a downtown residence. There are performances at local vineyards and nursing homes, as well as at regular jazz-supporting venues, like board member Jacie Dunkle’s Tin Whistle and Fellini’s, and Miller’s, where trumpeter John D’earth has a regular Thursday night gig.
In Charlottesville, it seems, jazz is alive—and improvising.