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Jazz is Still Alive (If You Know Where to Look)

Arts & Entertainment

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By Savvas Savvinidis

Photos by Savvas Savvinidis

“This is dying,” says Cesar Lopez with a matter-of-fact expression, the both of us standing outside Ruby’s Elixir in St. Petersburg. What’s dying, Lopez will later clarify, is live music, specifically jazz.

Every Thursday, Ruby’s Elixir is the venue for what is indubitably Tampa Bay’s premier jazz jam, an all-night affair hosted by house band Le Jazz. All musicians are invited to sit in on a mix of standards, traditional and contemporary, as well as the occasional unorthodox surprise which creeps in through the haze of cigars.

For someone like Cesar Lopez, this is perhaps the ultimate night on the town, a chance to mellow out and play his trumpet for people who have moseyed in with the intention to see that very thing. He first heard about the open jams at Ruby’s when he was a teenager rehearsing with friends at Ruth Eckerd Hall, and has since become a regular in the horn section that routinely forms from various walk-in talent alongside trumpeter Dwayne White.

Cesar Lopez feels out the groove

Trombonist Derek Reynolds is another face you might see at Ruby’s. A trombone player by trade, Reynolds points out that there are few other jazz outlets in the Tampa Bay area, but none of comparable ambition. “Statistics show it’s the least appreciated form of music,” he says, and I can’t help but wonder how true that is.

As it turns out, Reynolds is not mistaken. According to a study conducted by the Nielsen Company and made public in March of 2015, jazz is now the least popular genre of music in the U.S., ranked slightly below classical. Analysts refer to an aging listener group as the cause, with many old jazz junkies unwilling to approach digital media and increasingly unable to find record stores, causing their music consumption to stagnate.

This is unexpected, at least to me, because I can’t help but notice how jazz seems to have infiltrated some of the more popular music genres. Look at hip-hop, for example, which is now exhibiting a flood of nontraditional chord progressions and rhythms which can be traced to jazz.

(It reminds me of ancient Greek and Latin, once among the most spoken languages in the world, now playing a low key but integral role within the pantheon of modern western tongues. Show me how many European or central Asian languages have no Greco-Roman influence, and then tell me Latin is dead.)

House pianist Ben Winkler takes 5

Not only is there a very obvious assimilation of jazz concepts in other music, but jazz is frequently taught as part of musical education curriculums all over the world alongside classical. In a way, jazz is the new classical, at least in American terms, being such a tangible, recent, yet impactful entry in our country’s sonic history. Along with rock & roll and the blues, their direct ancestor, jazz, is a wonderfully American form of music.

This is why the rarity of jazz is tragic, and why a place like Ruby’s Elixir is so unique. In this bar where hanging red lamps ignite floating tobacco smoke and patrons swing dance to the ta-ta-ta of a ride cymbal, jazz not only takes shelter, but provides a truly novel attraction.

Le Jazz engages fully in its novelty, rocking an improvisational set with various guests from 10 PM to 2 AM. Their core trio is made up of pianist Ben Winkler, the aforementioned trumpet player Dwayne White, and drummer Joe Renda. Leading the band is bassist Hiram Hazley.

Hiram Hazley tears into the electric bass

Hazley runs the self-named Hazley Productions and leads Le Jazz in addition to Fencewalk, a complete-with-horns ensemble blasting arrangements of top 40s R&B hits. (Fencewalk’s smaller scale cousin is Magic, a four piece band with the horns subtracted.)

Hazley began as a trumpet player, going so far as to attend Harlem’s City College in 1976 for trumpet, but picked up the bass upon returning home to St. Petersburg for the summer. His first gig as a bassist was at Busch Gardens Tampa, filling in for another bass player who had left his position with little notice. As Hazley puts it, “It was a blessing.”

After hearing Hiram Hazley shred his beast of a six string bass — he switches between that and a traditional upright — you may feel blessed yourself.

General manager Chris Stephon, contrary to the apparent decline of jazz, tells me he’s seen a significant increase in attendance, which he correlates to Le Jazz beginning its tenure at Ruby’s five years ago. “I used to work solo on Monday nights,” Stephon says, “but now I can’t do that.” About Hiram Hazley, Stephon commends his ability to draw musicians “out of their shells.”

None other than the lovely Monica Hardy

Monica Hardy started coming out to Ruby’s Elixir at the suggestion of Henry Ashwood Jr., a prominent local saxophonist and mutual friend of Hiram Hazley. Now she’s there every Thursday, stepping up to the microphone to sing with Hazley and Le Jazz Trio. “There’s nothing else like it here. Not in Tampa, not in Clearwater, not in St. Pete.”

I can’t exactly disagree when Cesar Lopez tells me that live music is dying. It’s absolutely plausible that electronic music will one day fully supplant the electric guitar; maybe those instrumentalists who rely on manual dexterity will be replaced by those who manually hit the play button. Maybe pop music will succeed in strangling real music.

Take a stroll through a neighborhood like downtown St. Petersburg, though, and you might think otherwise. Soul is still alive. The blues are still kicking. It’s all still here, supported by a small but loving population bearing the rare trait of good taste. Jazz may be dying, but it’s far from dead.

You just have to look for it.

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