And All That Jazz
The Key Players Making Big Bands Even Bigger
written by JENNIFER COLOSIMO | photography by ALAN BROOKS
Last month I walked into a jazz club for the first time in my life. I’ll admit, amidst my mental preparations, I envisioned myself as a little bit of Lorraine Bracco in “Goodfellas.” I was giddy to get dressed up, had a little swagger in my step, seriously contemplated buying cigarettes for the occasion and prepared for a spirit-soaked evening of easy listening and cool ambiance. Some of that stereotype remained accurate … some of it had evolved (I didn’t get the cigarettes). But for the recipe of soul that I experienced, it became evident that however defined and however enjoyed, jazz is back, in a big way.
In some cases, you might even say, in a big band way, because these days, it’s a rarity to experience grand, live music at the dinner table, especially one outside of six-figure wedding reception. Experiences like mine – at the acclaimed Café 290 in Sandy Springs – are something from the past. Au contraire. In-the-know jazz fans can find similar nights out all over town, from lively 16-member brass, keys, vocals and more bands to open-mic jam sessions and impressive single-artist serenades.
In Atlanta, as many “new” traditions edge toward nostalgic, the spirit of jazz music journeys beyond the aforementioned big day dance floor to something people today are really into again.
BIG BAND MAN
You remember the swing craze. People were jumping, jiving and wailing to anything that made them feel like they were either raised on the boardwalk in Jersey or in another era. Its roots in jazz were chords and melodies that people couldn’t shake, and for my generation, something our playlists were missing. In search of that spirit, I started listening to Frank Sinatra. I found an old record of my grandfather’s with Louis Armstrong hits and bebop tunes from Dizzy Gillespie.
Other jazz trumpet players like Miles Davis filled my iTunes search engine and I even read up on everything about the upcoming Chet Baker biopic. Actually, when you go beyond the trendy niches of jazz, there is a lot of good stuff to discover, such as smooth jazz from Kenny G, traditional New Orleans street-beat, modern or modal jazz, the blues and more. Because of big-band-backed artists like the classic Sinatra and pop singers of today, Harry Connick Jr. and Michael Bublé, the genre undoubtedly has a place in the mainstream, and with Atlanta’s extremely talented local scene, it’s also genuinely evergreen.
“It’s jazz…” one of Atlanta’s own talents, jazz trumpet player Joe Gransden said. “I think it’s just great music. I think that anyone who hears it done right – even if that’s not their favorite thing – is going to think, ‘That’s cool.’ The big band has a lot of power, because there are sections that can stand up and blow together. That’s really my first love. It crosses that line to become more accessible for the public. It becomes contemporary, and something that can be enjoyed by old folks and young ones alike.”
Gransden moved to Atlanta as a solo, freelance trumpet player after 9/11 shook the music industry in New York. His girlfriend and the steady gig waiting for him here made the decision to relocate a no-brainer. He played The Club at Chops for several years before deciding to put his own band together for a gig at then Veni Vidi Vici.
“The manager there said, you need to hire a singer,” Gransden said, explaining that it was either develop an untapped talent or lose the gig. Gransden asked his father – a jazz singer and piano player – to teach him a few songs that he could sing on the fly. He debuted his new talent the next night at the restaurant and said the manager loved his new, attentive, singalong crowd. That led Gransden to yet another decision.
In 2007, he put together a 16-piece band with five saxophones, four trombones, four trumpets, a piano, the bass and drums, including the renowned arranger and trombone player, Wes Funderburk. This year, they will play Blue Note in New York City for the third time and locally, they’ll headline the Georgia Ensemble Theatre’s winter concert series for the fourth year in a row. Café 290 is where they perform every first and third Monday to a packed house, debuting new arrangements, playing covers that get people itching to get up from the table and reminding anyone in the room why this music is classic.
Their music doesn’t stop in the clubs. To celebrate the centennial of Sinatra’s birth, the band just released “Songs of Sinatra & Friends” – a tribute of classic covers that I personally prescribe as the panacea to all things Atlanta traffic. Oh, and Gransden is still their lead singer.
Gransden first chose the trumpet as a fourth grader, having no reason to pick that instrument other than the fact it was what his grandfather played. Those living room performances were enough to sway his choice, and has resulted in being named a 2016 Atlanta Jazz Hero by the Jazz Journalists Association – a nod to industry professionals doing a lot in their communities to teach the benefits of music – and nominated for GA Music Awards’ 2016 Jazz Artist of the Year. His small, original quartet still tours together and you can find him hosting Tuesday night jam sessions at Venkman’s in Atlanta or playing with Kenny Banks at Buckhead’s Ritz Carlton every Thursday.
“I really just wanted to be a hockey player,” Gransden said. “But then my band director brought in a professional musician to solo with us – his name was Alan Vizzutti, one of the top trumpet players on the planet – I mean, I didn’t know a trumpet could do that. I’ll never forget the minute when I said, ‘that’s what I’m doing for the rest of my life.’
SMALL SPACE SERENADE
While Gransden’s big band is making waves in the name of jazz, there’s also a huge following for smaller shows where individual talent really shines. Like the 45-seat Alpharetta club, The Velvet Note. Open four years this summer, it was built to invite suburb dwellers into something that would feel like their own living room – comfortable, easy and intimate – and not require the long drive into the city. It was also a place to celebrate the talent that jazz music has brought back into the Atlanta scene and make those artists more accessible to fans outside the city center.
Owner and Manager Tamara Fuller said, “When you get on a stage to do a performance, when you’ve spent your life practicing, composing and touring, what you end up giving the audience is just a kiss. In a small venue, the audience is so close, they’re so engaged that it’s like the audience is kissing you back. It puts a life-changing intimacy, or a stamp, on that experience.”
Fuller reiterated the impact that a smaller group of musicians can have on an audience. “In a big band, there is virtually no silence,” she said. “The music is designed to bring a rich, juicy and full musicianship to the experience. But, with a small group, you can hear the pauses, the margins and sometimes that silence is as beautiful as the music itself.”
“I remember when Marcus Roberts came and performed at The Velvet Note,” Fuller said of the Grammy Award-winning piano player. “As he finished his show, he played that last note and let it just linger on. It drifted to a very subtle silence over the course of about 30 seconds. No one moved. They just listened.”
Gransden called it an intellectual experience, and not something you can zone out to like some popular music. But therein lies the reason it’s back in such a big way.
“We went so far as an industry into synthesized music, that people really wanted something real, something authentic – real music, played by real musicians on real instruments. Jazz was that answer,” Fuller said.
Luckily some of the best “real” musicians live right here in Atlanta, some having been in films, others won Grammys or topped charts – all making Atlanta artists known around the world, therefore attracting even more talent to our little music mecca.
“There’s a lot of musical diversity here, too,” Fuller said. “Jazz is that platform that combines the rhythms, beats and soul with melodies and harmonies to make something that transcends age brackets and connects people from across several genres.”
A BEAT THAT BLENDS
Jazz connects people. It’s a tangible cultural fusion, and it fuses together our sense of humanity. You can look across the room and see someone tapping their feet to the same beat. Both Fuller and Gransden will also tell you, there is a community to thank for spreading the word. She cites Gransden for his weekly jam sessions that connect great artists in the city. He nods to Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, but since that isn’t something those of us living in North Atlanta can enjoy on the weekends (or have our kids look forward to at school), thankfully the players here are using those same ideas to make it happen. And they’re playing a lot.
Gransden’s own music teacher, Dr. Gordon Vernick, directed his Rialto Youth Jazz Orchestra as the opening act the night I went to Café 290, showcasing the active evolution of passing down good music (and harboring good talent) from one generation to the next. Gransden helps foster the bug via trumpet lessons for kids in elementary school to adults in their 70s. Churchill Grounds, which will reopen in a new, larger space this year, showcases talent in line with traditional jazz. Sweet Georgia’s Juke Joint lets you pay homage to neo-soul and R&B jazz with sweltering, late-night dance parties and Cosmopolitan Live in Marietta has featured Gransden, Douglas Cameron and other big bands. The unifying factor is that these, like other venues, are packed; they’re all playing jazz and they’re helping grow the community by creating a network for artists to grow themselves.
“Whether improvised jazz or big band swing from the 1940s, if it’s good, then it’s swingin’ and it makes you feel good on the inside,” Gransden said. I couldn’t agree more, so here’s to hoping more kids choose to play the trumpet for no good reason. As Bublé would say, we just haven’t met them yet.