The jazz industry’s relationship with Jacksonville goes back nearly a century, maybe more. Some of the earliest black territory bands working the Deep South were passing through here years before the first jazz records had even been made; that was around 1917. Swing bands ranging from Cab Calloway’s to Dizzy Gillespie’s played here during the ’30s and ’40s, and of course the Jacksonville Jazz Festival has hosted at least 100 hall-of-famers in its epic four-decade run.
As the saying goes, the more things change, the more they stay the same — that’s certainly true for jazz, which has weathered commercial and critical storms for 40 years, withstanding the loss of so many legends and would-be legends, holding fast against seismic changes in the music business, the rise of new genres and sub-genres, a relentless wave of change that some observers thought had already rendered jazz irrelevant. Some still believe that today. Yet here we are, in 2015, and some of the best jazz music of the past 40 years has been made in the last five, often by people in their 20s and early 30s. The New York City scene has undergone a creative renaissance that has, in turn, reinvigorated the global market, and the effects can be felt right here in Northeast Florida.
The jazz scene in Jacksonville is doing as well as the local music scene in general — which is to say, fantastic, as readers of this publication already know. Jacksonville has a good dozen live music venues that are ideally suited for jazz music, from perspectives both aesthetic and auditory. Those venues have hosted a lot of really good shows in recent years. The month of February presents a special opportunity for the cognoscenti and the casual fan, as two of the very best ever in the business swing through The River City within a week of each other.
Savvy couples should extend their Valentine’s Day festivities through the weekend, capping off with Harry Connick Jr. at the T-U Center on Feb. 15. Connick sports one of the most well-rounded résumés in all of show business: three Grammys and 11 nominations; 30 albums and eight concert DVDs; 20-plus appearances (in dramatic and comedic roles) on non-musical TV shows, ranging from Will & Grace and Cheers to Law & Order: SVU and This Old House; five TV specials for three networks; 22 movies (Hope Floats and Copycat come to mind) and three Broadway musicals. He’s sung our national anthem at the Super Bowl, World Series and Daytona 500; he even performed for Michelle Obama at the White House.
No other jazzman of his generation has had such total crossover appeal, except maybe Wynton Marsalis. Both were child prodigies who emerged from New Orleans in the early ’70s before bum-rushing a New York City scene that thought that NOLA style was dead and buried — nope. Both waxed classics for Columbia Records; both are currently touring with big bands. (Connick actually made three albums for a label run by Branford Marsalis, who, at one point, did A&R for Columbia. Small world!) Harry Connick Sr. was the district attorney of New Orleans for 30 years, and his wife Anita was a pioneering female judge in that city; and now, their talented son is also a judge — on American Idol.
On Feb. 20, The Florida Theatre hosts Marcus Roberts, a man many consider the greatest musician this city has ever produced. He, too, was a prodigy, as documented last year on 60 Minutes by — of course! — Wynton Marsalis, who put the kid over in New York City 30 years ago and now calls him “the greatest American musician most people have never heard of.” Roberts won the inaugural Great American Jazz Piano Competition at the 1983 Jax Jazz Fest.
Roberts tours in support of his 2014 album Romance, Swing and the Blues, his 24th as a leader, recorded with his own big band, the Modern Jazz Generation. That group features his regular trio (with Rodney Jordan on bass and Jason Marsalis on drums) augmented by 10 of the genre’s rising talents, including trumpeter Tim Blackmon, saxophonist Ricardo Pascal, baritone saxophonist Tissa Khosla, Jacksonville University’s own Corey Wilcox on trombone, as well as Marcus Printup on trumpet. It’s a perfect example of giving back to the business, a jazz tradition, and traditionalism is his stock in trade.
Roberts and Connick are two very different pianists linked not only by common allies, but by a common legacy: Each has played his own unique and specific role in helping take jazz music into the 21st century. Both first-ballot hall-of-famers, men who don’t just draw critical acclaim — they draw money, and in so doing, help confirm the commercial viability of jazz music in an increasingly diffuse and diversified market. With stacked itineraries for the year, and ticket prices running into the hundreds in some cases, clearly they’re doing something right.