Having spent much of his first year in Lexington performing or presenting live jazz in restaurants and nightspots, Eli Uttal-Veroff frequently heard the same thing:
“Where can I hear more of this?”
“At every gig I played, whether it was at restaurants like Carson’s or other places, we would have people come up to us saying, ‘This is so great. Where else can we hear jazz happening?’” Uttal-Veroff said. “And we were like, ‘Well, this is sort of it.’ I couldn’t really tell them anything further, and for me that was a big thing.
At roughly the same time, Richard Young was attending a concert in Cincinnati, part of a long-established jazz series at Xavier University that regularly brought in shows by some of the genre’s most lauded and established names. Having been director for the Chamber Music Festival of Lexington, he was familiar with presenting music outside the commercial mainstream. When organizers of the Xavier series suggested booking some of their acts in Lexington around the Cincinnati dates, an idea for a new local music event began to take shape.
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“But through conversations, I thought, ‘I definitely don’t want to do this on my own,’” Young said. “So I started searching out other people I felt would be great at helping with this.”
So Uttal-Veroff and Young became part of a five-member team that brought the Origins Jazz Series to life. The idea was to raise awareness of a cherished American art form by letting Lexington audiences witness it in living practice. The series presents its fourth show in as many months, by local vocalist Jessie Laine Powell, on Saturday at Tee Dee’s Lounge on East Second Street.
Live jazz hadn’t been dormant in town. Several area restaurants presented the music, and there have been monthly jazz concerts at the Lexington Public Library, the largely inactive Outside the Spotlight Series of more indie-oriented and free jazz-leaning performances, and the monthly residency of the DiMartino-Osland Jazz Orchestra at Comedy Off Broadway. The DiMartino-Osland gig was Uttal-Veroff’s introduction to live jazz in Lexington, having moved here from Rochester, N.Y., and before that, Indianapolis.
“The first thing you do when you come to a town is you do research on who are the major players, where people play and where the venues are,” Uttal-Veroff said. “Basically, it’s ‘How do you break in?’ Most cities have gathering places where you can meet other musicians, whether it’s through a jam session or a jazz club where, on any given night, other jazz musicians are performing or just hanging out. About three days after my wife and I moved here, we went to Comedy Off Broadway and caught DOJO (the DiMartino-Osland band) playing. I thought, ‘This is great. Here are at least 20 musicians I know now.’”
What the Origins Jazz Series sought, beginning with its first concert in October, was to implement a two-level design. One focused on local and regional artists playing in a club atmosphere: Tee Dee’s. The other highlighted national touring acts in a traditional concert hall setting — the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center, a block from Tee Dee’s.
The first two shows, both of them Saturday evenings at Tee Dee’s, featured New York by-way-of New England saxophonist Noah Preminger and trumpeter, artist-in-residence and Kentucky State University associate professor Marlin McKay. Each played to capacity crowds. A December concert by the West Coast fusion ensemble Kneebody at the Lyric earned a sparser turnout on a Thursday evening.
“It’s hard seeing the Lyric not full, because we’ve had support from several sponsors to help make the series possible,” Young said. “None of us are making any money on this and donating a lot of our own time. We’re going, ‘How do we get to a point where we have 200 people showing up versus maybe 400?’ That kind of a swing makes a really big difference.”
“I’m sure Xavier had the same kind of experience when they first started out about 10 years ago,” Uttal-Veroff said. “Every jazz club or restaurant when they’re starting out faces this. Unless you have the money to hire a huge publicity team to do this big blast right at the beginning, where you almost force the audience to take notice, you’re going to do it from more of a grassroots perspective. So as we’re doing this, it’s a slow build to where you bring in a band like Kneebody. Even for people who have heard of them, we’re hoping this to be more about, ‘Oh, the Origins Jazz Series is putting it on. It must be good.’ We want to get to where they’ll come out to a show even without much knowledge about the music at all.”
But even with its most critically prominent names on the marquees, jazz can be a tough sell outside of major metropolitan markets. Origins looks to pool its resources with input from other community leaders. Joining Uttal-Veroff and Young on the series’ planning committee are Lyric executive director Donald Mason, Soulful Space producer and promoter Shawn Gannon, and Chester Grundy, the overseer of the Spotlight Jazz Series at the University of Kentucky during its three-decade run.
“I look at the Chamber Music Festival as an example,” Young said. “At those shows, I had to ask myself, ‘How many of those people are there because it’s the Chamber Music Festival or because they are specific fans of a particular artist?’ My answer to myself was, ‘Probably a little bit of both.’ The Chamber Music Festival has a reputation of bringing in high-quality artists who have put together a really well-planned-out program. So we’re trying to get to that point, too, to where we can put any local act into Tee Dee’s, and people will show up because we were the ones who booked it.”
“That’s the reason why it’s important for us to put on shows, even if they’re not as successful as we want them to be, from the get-go,” Uttal-Veroff said. “If you don’t take some bumps and bruises, you won’t ever get there.”
If you go
Origins Jazz Series presents Jessie Laine Powell
When: 7:30 p.m. Jan. 13
Where: Tee Dee’s Lounge, 266 E. Second St.
The Origins Jazz Series will present two free events in conjunction with Saturday’s concert:
▪ “Listen-In at the Wild Fig,” with Jessie Laine Powell discussing the 1961 recording “Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Harold Arlen Songbook.” 10:30 a.m. Jan. 13 at Wild Fig Coffee and Books, 726 N. Limestone.
▪ “Women in Jazz: Understanding Our History,” a panel discussion with Kelle Jolly, Jessie Laine Powell, Meghan Pund and Gail Wynters with moderator Jay Alexander. 4 p.m. Jan. 14 at the Lyric Theatre and Cultural Arts Center Gallery, 300 E. Third St.