Fifty-four minutes into an hour-long set, the quartet is cooking under a dark brown gazebo. Tyson Baker’s hands walk, da-doom-doom-doom, down the fingerboard of his upright bass. Cecilia Richardson’s electric
Fifty-four minutes into an hour-long set, the quartet is cooking under a dark brown gazebo. Tyson Baker’s hands walk, da-doom-doom-doom, down the fingerboard of his upright bass. Cecilia Richardson’s electric guitar carves mellow grooves into the dusk while Jack Jones’s brushes glide, shhhh-shhhh, across his snare. Ian Rood suddenly steps forward, raising trumpet to lips.
The number they’re playing? It’s surely new to the 200 or so folks sipping stouts and IPAs at picnic tables behind Greensboro’s Oden Brewing Company. That’s because “rhythm changes” isn’t so much a song as it is a series of chord progressions based on George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” It’s never the same twice, especially not the way these cats play it.
Rood blows out his solo, which sounds a lot like — no, wait, it actually is — the theme to The Flintstones. The few folks who’d been talking instead of listening, including a dozen of the quartet’s classmates from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro’s Miles Davis Jazz Studies Program, swivel toward Rood’s staccato yabba-dabba improv and applaud.
What may seem like just another Thursday night jam sesh is actually an important part of UNCG’s jazz program, one that the students are eager to participate in. “For me, jazz taps into human emotions and soul better than other forms of music,” Rood says after the set. “It’s such a personal thing, like a fingerprint. Everyone plays differently.”
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The UNCG program is the fulcrum around which jazz revolves in Greensboro and the central North Carolina diaspora. The genre has been a part of the School of Music since the Jazz Ensemble formed in 1969, about the same time that adjoining Tate Street became a thriving center for alternative music and culture. In fact, UNCG is home to one of Miles Davis’s trumpets — actually, the Miles Davis trumpet, the one featured on the cover of his earth-shattering 1959 album, Kind of Blue. The instrument was donated in 2001 by the late Arthur “Buddy” Gist, whose family owned the Magnolia Hotel, famed for housing Black artists like Davis when they were in Greensboro (as he was in 1973, when he played at UNCG’s Aycock Auditorium). Gist and Davis, it turns out, were old friends who’d met at New York City’s legendary Birdland jazz club in 1949 and spent a lot of time together during the trumpeter’s most creative years.
Things began to really swing at UNCG in 1983, when the music school created the Jazz Studies concentration. And since the arrival of faculty member and bassist Steve Haines in 1999 — he helped create a jazz concentration for music education majors in 2021 — student combos have jammed in bars and coffee shops on most nights of the week. It’s part of the faculty’s push to expand opportunities for students to perform live beyond recitals and clinics.
“Where you really learn about this music is playing with other people — and that includes playing with people who can kick your butt,” Haines says. “What I tell my students is, ‘Newsflash: Everywhere you go in the world, there’s always going to be somebody better than you in the room. So you’d better be willing to be humble.’”
For that reason, students and faculty frequently play gigs together as part of the Spartan Jazz Collective. Last September, for instance, the collective played everywhere from the John Coltrane International Jazz & Blues Festival in High Point to Butner federal prison. For nearly a decade, students and faculty also have played this weekly gig, which was originally held at Tate Street Coffee House until Covid precipitated the need for the outdoor setting that Oden offers.
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That pre-pandemic period may have been the heyday of jazz on Tate Street, which may seem counterintuitive since Tate Street hasn’t been known for hosting much great live music over the past two decades. It was a different scene from the late 1960s to the early ’80s. Back then, clubs along this legendary strip presented lots of folk and rock groups, and then, later, punk and new wave acts. And there was jazz, too — just not the kind that Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole made famous.
While Weird UNCG buzzed about seeing then-folk singer and UNCG student Emmylou Harris — and, later, punk and alternative-rock bands like Black Flag and R.E.M. — perform in small clubs, Really Weird UNCG was still sleeping off the experimental jazz set they’d caught at Aliza’s Cafe. Later dubbed the Nightshade Cafe until it closed in 1990, the cramped basement of the Tate Street restaurant Hong Kong House hosted some of the strangest experimental jazz performances in music history.
Take the jazz and avant-garde guitarist Eugene Chadbourne, who dominated the scene in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Unlike when Bob Dylan went electric at the Newport Folk Festival in 1965, no one booed when Chadbourne, infamous for playing the electric rake (yes, a regular old yard rake), slipped an electrically amplified bird cage over his head and played it, too.
Then there’s F-Art Ensemble, an ever-changing lineup of musicians, mostly made up of UNCG students or alumni, who were grounded in jazz but eager to push boundaries. During its “Spiders on Drugs” show, members shared musical interpretations of what spiders felt when they spun webs after being given caffeine, LSD, and other substances for an experiment published in Scientific American in 1954. F-Art’s work often was political, too — like its song about Reagan-era Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, “All I Want for Christmas is War.”
In those days, says former student John Pasquini, jazz was a dirty word around UNCG’s music department. He was a freshman in 1978, and he played violin in F-Art. The ensemble’s existence, Pasquini says, was “youthful rebellion against the rigid structure of classical music.” Rebellion such as — and this is no joke — Pasquini and another group playing The Flintstones theme at Tate Street Coffee House.
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Nowadays, Tate Street provides fewer outlets for alternative music — or any music, really. Yet it exists here if you look for it. Guilford College’s jazz combos occasionally trek the five miles down Friendly Avenue to play at Tate Street Coffee House. And the Greensboro College Jazz Ensemble has played at the Royce Reynolds Family Student Life Center, which sits at the corner of Tate and West Market streets.
The good news is that today’s jazz scene extends well beyond Tate Street’s borders. “If you see somebody playing jazz [anywhere] in the area, they probably went to UNCG,” Pasquini says.
Thanks to Rood and percussionist Jones, there were even jazz performances during the summer at Wahoo’s Tavern, a dive bar about a mile and a half west of Tate Street. And Baker, the double bassist, has played a few duo and trio gigs at Downtown Common Grounds, a new coffee shop on South Elm Street.
More gigs and an increasing number of unlikely places to play are the best parts of being a jazz musician in Greensboro these days, says guitarist Richardson. Well, that, and helping to write a new chapter in the city’s jazz history.