The closest thing Savannah has to a full–tilt jazz club is in Hilton Head, S.C.
That’s the Jazz Corner, which opened in 1999, with a performance by George Shearing, and has kept the Olympic flame burning all these years with night after night of the good stuff in its myriad forms.
Be that as it may, our fair city has its own keepers of the jazz torch, and while they might not have a regular, finger–snapping nightclub, they’re dedicated to keeping jazz living, and breathing, in Savannah.
Formed in 1982, the Coastal Jazz Association was the brainchild of local music legends Teddy Adams and Ben Tucker, along with a like–minded group of jazz enthusiasts. Adams, in fact, had been playing trombone here in his hometown since the 1950s.
This weekend, Adams has organized his 35th annual holiday concert with a band of area all–stars. Taking place on Christmas Day, at the Westin Savannah Harbor Resort, Jazz Yule Love is technically the December entry in the Coastal Jazz Association’s monthly calendar of events.
Guitarist Howard Paul, who’s lived here since 1991 and is a frequent performer at CJA shows, and the annual Savannah Jazz Festival, is making his very first appearance at Jazz Yule Love (he’s usually out of town for the holidays).
An organized jazz society, Paul believes, is “a tremendously important part of the community. Not just ours, but communities all over the country.
“Here’s one of the challenges: Everybody has a different impression of what jazz is. Particularly club owners – their perception of jazz is either what they think their customers are going to buy, or what they bring in to a hotel, restaurant or nightclub, with their perceptions, and try and sell it.”
Paul is president and CEO of Benedetto Guitars, and he’s also the public face of the internationally–renowned instrument manufacturer.
“The benefit of a jazz society,” he says, “is that you have a group of people in the community who are sort of deciding – or at least helping the community decide – the whole breadth of jazz available through community concerts.”
To wit, Paul explains, the monthly CJA shows, spotlighting different local, regional and national artists, regularly bring in between 250 and 300 people.
“Every month, it’s a very different group,” he says. “Every month it’s been nearly a sold–out audience, and every month it’s been a very different style of jazz. But it’s still jazz.
“And I think that’s what the community misses without having an association dedicated to jazz. When you see a jazz festival advertised today, it’s funk, or smooth jazz, or hip hop or who knows what you’re gonna find.
“I think what the Coastal Jazz Association’s been able to do is really keep more traditional aspects of jazz in mind when they bring in these various concerts. And without ‘em, you’d just never see it.”
In November, for example, Bob Masteller’s Jazz Band put on a tribute to Louis Armstrong. “And so it was very traditional New Orleans and Chicago–style jazz, but true to the art form of what it was intended to be,” says Paul.
“The month before that, the band was a more modern group led by Jackson Evans, who’s what I would term a fourth or fifth generation jazz guitarist. Maybe he listened to people like Charlie Christian and Wes Montgomery, but his greater influences were much more modern players. So the music that Jackson played had much more modern aspects.
“Yet there were 300 people that showed up because they trusted the Coastal Jazz Association to bring in an appropriate group that they could see. That they could still call ‘jazz.’”
Jazz Yule Love features what Paul terms a “classic pick–up group,” meaning the musicians have all played together before, at one time or another, but never in this precise configuration.
Along with Paul on guitar, there’s drummer Quintin Baxter, pianist Eric Jones, bassist Willie Harvey, trumpeter Alex Nguyen and sax player Keddi Williams.
Although the concert will be tailed by a traditional holiday jam session (with Adams and other CJA stalwarts joining in), “it’ll be probably a lot more structured than a jam session, but still very loose and improvisational,” Paul says.
“There are no charts. Somebody’s going to call the tune, and everybody’s going to try and look like they know what the hell they’re playing.”
These are pros. They’ll hammer out a set list at their afternoon soundcheck. “If three out of the five guys know the tune, we’ll probably do it. And that should be entirely invisible to the audience.
“And often it makes for an even more enjoyable song, because in the band there’s a great deal of excitement and energy.”
And that, of course, is the essence of jazz.
Jazz Yule Love
Where: Westin Harbor Resort, 1 Resort Drive (on Hutchinson Island)
When: At 5 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 25
Tickets: $20 advance, $25 at the door
Contact: (912) 920–1317