The Jazz Condition

By KEN FRANCKLING, United Press International  |  Oct. 22, 2002 at 6:00 AM
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, Oct. 22 (UPI) -- Jazz was an integral part of the Las Vegas music scene three, four and five decades ago, before the city created -- and has tried to fill -- the public's thirst for glitz and showgirls, with a slot machine handle always within easy reach.

In those halcyon days and nights, jazz big bands brought their tours through town regularly and often played at casino grand openings. In the 1960s and '70s, organist Monk Montgomery and vibes player Red Norvo had consistently fine small groups working there.

In a time when DJ meant broadcaster, not someone spinning discs at a wedding or dance party, disc jockey Alan Grant broadcast live jazz on Monday nights from the Four Queens hotel and casino featuring top visiting talent.

"Today, it's all about magicians and impersonators and magnificent production shows. The technology is incredible," said pianist and arranger-conductor Vincent Falcone. "Cabaret, which made this town what it is, hardly exists anymore. That is discouraging for many of us who have lived here for so many years. It's not the sleepy little town it once was."

The Las Vegas edition of the Blue Note jazz club, tucked away in a far corner of the Aladdin Hotel's Desert Passage shopping complex, stands today as a musical oasis in the midst of the desert resort city's glitzy entertainment mix.

The New York-based club ownership owns the Blue Notes in Greenwich Village and Las Vegas as well as the B.B. King blues club in midtown Manhattan. It franchises its three locations in Japan and the B.B. King blues bar and dance club locations. This includes ones at Foxwoods Casino in southeastern Connecticut.

The theory, still unproven, is that if you build it, they will come. It is a slow process with a lot of patience and a few bumps along the way as the club passes its second Las Vegas anniversary.

It opened its doors on Harmon Avenue, a block off Las Vegas Boulevard, with a Vegas-like showroom holding up to 500. After year one, the club shifted to a more intimate setting half that size next door and turned the main room over to a sexy dance show and after-hours dance club that helps pay the bills.

"Vegas is a very, very hard city to bring in something other than girls and slot machines. We're trying," said club manager Ronny Adler. "We tried it in the big room with large numbers and very big acts. Now we're trying the New York concept at the other clubs we have. They have small crowds and a very intimate setting. There's a nice ambience where you can really feel the vibe and even smell the sweat of the artists."

The club generally books its headliners for weeklong runs, beginning on a Monday and running through the following Saturday. Sunday nights frequently are set aside for freewheeling jam sessions featuring local artists.

One recent visit enabled me to catch saxophonist Chico Freeman's final Saturday performance, the Sunday night jam session, and the Monday night start of alto saxophonist Charles McPherson's run. Attendance varied, depending on the night of the week, though the Sunday jam had a larger turnout than McPherson's opener.

"There's a lot of support from the local community, including the Los Vegas Jam Band Society." Adler said. "We offer two-for-ones or comps on music charges midweek. Usually our Sundays are sold out and they are very good. Everybody knows the artists or wants to try themselves. I think it is something unique here.

"It took us two years in New York to make money and five years in Japan. So we've got time. We're going to find the right thing, the right conditions. We're going to give it another year or two. We're going to make it," he said.

The club's attractions have included Chick Corea, Avishai Cohen, Grant Green Jr., Mike Stern, and drummer Steve Smith's band Vital Information in bookings primarily arranged by the club's New York headquarters.

Freeman's engagement drew a full house to his first show on Friday but less than half a house the next night. "I think the Blue Note has to stick it out and keep bringing in high quality music so people know they can find great music here," Freeman said, appreciative of the room's sight lines and top notch acoustics, and sound engineering by production manager Bob Collins.

"I'll take a few attentive people any time over a bunch of people who are talking," Freeman said.

The Sunday jam session included Doug Zagoski and Bugzy Garza on drums, singers Ethel Jones and Vivian Rose, Ed Sherry on trumpet, Dave Hart on guitar and harmonica, Duston Johnson, and singer-pianist Dee Daniels.

Pianist Falcone, a resident of suburban Henderson, is a longtime conductor and musical director whose employers include Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme, Jerry Lewis, Robert Goulet and Diahann Carroll. He was singer Frank Sinatra's musical director for many years.

With an unusual lull in his schedule, he was able to spend a week in McPherson's quartet. It was his first time working at the club, though he had been there previously as a listener.

"We used to have a great thing here (in Las Vegas) years ago on Monday nights. Alan Grant hosted jazz at the Four Queens," Falcone said. "I used to do that all the time, but times change."

Charlie Parker disciple McPherson and his fine band with pianist Falcone, bassist Chris Gordon and drummer Tony Check performed a scorching yet exquisite set that included "Like Someone in Love," "Billie's Bounce," Perdido" and "Keys and Insomnia."

If you build it, the true jazz fans may find it. Just turn left -- or right -- on Harmon, in the midst of The Strip's slot machine palaces and other temples to glitzy excess.

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