It’s cool. It’s funky. And, if you ask local musician, producer and owner of 11:11 Studios, Mike Levy, its rhythm can be visualized something “like an egg rolling” — slightly off-kilter, yet quasi-sober — “steady, but swinging,” he calls it. We’re talking about jazz and, later this month, Tucson is putting on its largest showcase ever for the genre during the first annual HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival.
The festival will take place Jan. 16-28, with names like Burt Bacharach, JD Souther, Billy Childs and Robert Glasper performing in near-nightly shows at such venues as the Fox Tucson Theatre, Rialto Theatre, Hotel Congress and The Screening Room downtown. There will also be two jazz brunches in the Oro Valley area over the course of the event and a free-to-attend show downtown featuring multiple artists on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, Jan. 19. The festival promises to be a draw for tourists across the nation during a time when Tucson traditionally experiences a bit of a lag in tourism.
Jews have a long history of high profile players in the jazz game — one-time household names such as Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw and Stan Getz — which is one reason the Nazis made a push to ban jazz from German airwaves during World War II. Jazz is also perhaps the most free-form of all types of music, another off-putting factor for dictators looking to suppress freedom of expression.
Roscoe Freund, a local door and window salesman by day and emphatic jazz drummer by night, says of playing with his band, “we’re all adhering to a certain structure, but what happens inside that structure — and outside of it — is completely dependent on what the musician is thinking and feeling at the moment. Jazz,” he adds, “starts with the same rules that other types of music have, but it expands on the rules.”
If you ask a musician how it feels to improvise a tune in front of an audience, most suggest that there is something transcendent about playing jazz music in particular. Max Goldschmid is a 20-year-old prodigy of brass and wind instruments who claims that, given between 30 minutes and an hour with an unfamiliar instrument, he can “figure out how to play two-to-three octaves on the chromatic scale with it.” Goldschmid says that, for him, playing jazz “is sort of like a meditative state — one that allows me to basically abandon all thought and outside stress and stimuli and become one with the music and nothing else. If the music is really good,” he says, “then nothing else exists.”
Levy explains that he likes “those moments that come off choreographed, but improvised. It’s a high when that happens.” Levy, who recently finished recording his fifth album alongside his wife, Theresa, under the moniker Nossa Bossa Nova, seems as much in need of music in his life as oxygen, food or water. “I consider all good music to be a reflection of divinity,” he says. Playing and writing music have helped him to work through his toughest times — he wrote his Holocaust-inspired symphonic piece, “Shoah,” for example, in the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001 while living within walking distance of Ground Zero in New York City.
Levy is not the only one who has experienced the therapeutic benefits of jazz music. Birks Works keyboardist and Jewish Federation of Southern Arizona President and CEO Stuart Mellan says that his journey through jazz started somewhat late, but that it was nonetheless a transformative experience. Though he had played piano throughout his life and had always been a fan of jazz music, Mellan didn’t actually start learning to play jazz until after he was widowed as a young man. “I was doing grief therapy,” says Mellan, “and after a while I decided I would make a shift and spend the money I was using on grief therapy on jazz lessons.” Apparently the decision paid off. “People say that I look happy when I play,” he says, adding that his “mind is completely in the moment” when he does so.
Mellan points out that although Jews have been attracted to the arts in all forms through the ages, “There is something in (jazz) music, sort of an element of mood, that comes from Middle-Eastern and cantorial music that resonates (with Jews).” Logistically, he says “it’s sort of this tension between the minor and major keys,” though the real nature of the relationship seems to go much, much deeper.
“When you’re playing and you capture that nectar — that lightning in a bottle,” says Freund, “you are connecting in such a way and feeling in such a way that it can’t be anything but spiritual. That’s the reason most musicians play — because they get a taste of that sweet nectar; just connecting with the energy of the cosmos.” And, though the endeavor is a lighthearted one, Freund insists that it’s serious business. “(Playing) in a jazz band, you connect with the souls of other people,” he says.
Goldschmid, referencing the Leonardo DiCaprio film, “Inception,” explains that playing jazz is kind of like creating a dream: “It’s simultaneous perception and creation,” he says. “You’re creating the music as it happens.” And that, in effect, builds on an ever-changing musical dialogue between band members, composers, and, of course, those tapping their toes to the radio or in the crowd.
Mellan says that because of the on-the-fly nature of the genre, to be a jazz musician “you have to be a good listener” — a truth that he says carries over from his life tickling the ivories into his career as a community leader and his faith as a Jew. “I think there is this aspect of feeling like part of a community where people support each other that exists in my work, and also in my Jewish identity, and in my music,” says Mellan. And — jazz fans or not — that’s something we can all appreciate.
Tucson Jazz Festival tickets are available at TucsonJazzFestival.org. Freund’s band appears Sunday nights at the Old Pueblo Grille on Alvernon Way; Goldschmid appears at Pastiche Sunday nights; Birks Works performs Saturdays at Vero Amore in Plaza Palomino; Levy’s most recent Nossa Bossa Nova release, including the Hebrew track “Maoz Tzur,” is available at www.NossaBossaNova.com.
Craig S. Baker is a freelance writer in Tucson.