And all that jazz

Local musicians discuss importance of bringing jazz to rural U.S. areas

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A conversation about jazz music with Peter Stoltzman would include him describing it as a “fascinating and deeply meaningful type of music.”

“Jazz, unlike any other music, has improvisation at its core,” said Stoltzman of north Denver, a jazz pianist and educator. “It’s spontaneous and conversational, yet built on more than 100 years of history.”

But for the past 70 years or so, jazz has been becoming less and less popular in the U.S., said the 42-year-old who has been a professional musician since his late teens.

“It’s super important that jazz gets out to the entire U.S.,” Stoltzman said. “If jazz is going to thrive in the U.S., artists have to be able to bring their music to more than just the handful of small, urban clubs.”

To help bring jazz music to rural, isolated and underserved parts of the country, a Jazz Road Tour grant is being offered to emerging and mid-career jazz artists for tour expenses.

Because of current social distancing measures in place across the country to prevent the spread of COVID-19, grant applications are now being accepted on a rolling status. Additionally, the original stipulated timeframe for the tour to take place has been waived.

“We want the program to be as flexible as possible to accommodate how artists work and build their tours,” said Ivan Schustak, director of communications and development for South Arts, a regional nonprofit arts organization.

South Arts is leading the national Jazz Road Tour grants program, but working in partnership with the five other U.S. Regional Arts Organizations, including the Western States Arts Federation of which Colorado is a member.

Colorado is home to some talented jazz musicians and Denver boasts some great venues such as Dazzle, Nocturne, El Chapultepec and many others, said jazz saxophonist Harry Drabkin of south Denver.

Drabkin added there are also quite a few smaller, local places that regularly host live jazz musicians, such as La Cour, a French bistro and jazz club in Washington Park where Drabkin has ongoing gigs twice a month.

“Denver is big enough to have that caliber of jazz musicians and venues,” Drabkin said. “In every city you’ll find some jazz, but it can be relatively non-existent if you live in some rural areas in the U.S.”

Drabkin, 71, started playing the trumpet as child, and was introduced to the saxophone through his childhood best friend’s brother. He studied music and performed live in college, but went on to pursue a career in research and medicine, specifically, oncology which lasted about 35 years. Though he retired about three years ago, Drabkin still participates in research at the University of Colorado-Boulder. About 14 years ago, Drabkin’s son Rob Drabkin, who pursued a career in music and is now a professional Denver-based acoustic rock musician, got him back into playing.

“Music appeals to people on an individual, emotional basis,” Drabkin said. He added that nowadays although people can experience jazz music by downloading or streaming, “it’s just not the same experience as live music, and seeing a musician play.”

Live jazz concerts give the audience an experience that happens once, and only once, said Hank Troy, 72, who has been playing piano since he was five and went professional after moving to Denver in 1971.

“People who go to see live jazz,” Troy said, “go because they enjoy the experience of watching music happen.”

Troy, of south Denver, currently performs solo, as well as with the Queen City Jazz Band. As a solo artist, he has accompanied singers and theater groups, and has played for silent movies.

The Queen City Jazz Band is an eight-piece band — seven instrumentalists and a singer — that performs at jazz festivals across the U.S.

“Going on tour is very broadening for touring musicians,” Troy said. “Every experience builds on the one before.”

Touring jazz musicians have the opportunity to introduce an audience to a music they love, as well as inspire and influence people in a positive way, Troy said.

“One of the things that makes jazz work is having an audience,” Troy said. “What we say in jazz is, we tell our stories live.”

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