Jazz Station: musical hub

Storied downtown Eugene jazz club looks to its next chapter

by DANIEL HEILA

Recently, Ted Ledgard, president of the Jazz Station in Eugene, was catching a show at a jazz venue in the Lower East Side of Manhattan when he got to talking with one of the patrons of the club. He asked Ledgard where he was from. Hearing his response, the man’s eyes lit up. “Hey, do you know about that jazz club there in Eugene?” he asked eagerly. “It’s called the Jazz Station.” Players he’d met who come through New York had played at the Jazz Station and spoken highly of the experience, he said.

Eugene’s Jazz Station. Photo: Daniel Heila

But while jazz insiders may understand that Eugene’s Jazz Station is a nationally recognized jazz venue, the focal point of the local jazz scene, and a supporter of students of jazz from high school through graduate school, not enough Oregon music lovers appreciate one of the Northwest’s finest jazz clubs. Now, the thirteen‑year‑old nonprofit organization is looking to change that. This Thursday, October 4, the Station hosts a Jazz Rent Party fundraising event, open to the public by RSVP. With its lease expiring in November, the organization is raising funds — for a possible relocation, for expanding public awareness and exposure, and for sustaining its successful model of venue management. After that, the Station’s fall season offers local jazz lovers a cornucopia of events. As we’ll see shortly, recent performances there demonstrate the club’s value to Oregon’s musical culture.

Opened by the Willamette Jazz Society (founders Nancy Hamilton, John Crider, Chris Orsinger, Rich Platz) in 2005, the Jazz Station started out as a cramped shoe box of a rehearsal studio at 68 West Broadway at the heart of downtown Eugene. Gradually, the public started showing up to regularly planned shows, pro jams, and instructional jams. The growth of the club’s audience and membership necessitated a move, in 2011, to its current larger space at 124 West Broadway largely renovated by volunteers Rob Sposato and Fred Wesley. As a testament to the Station’s commitment to the local scene, hometown honey saxophonist Joe Manis and his trio played the first concert.

Originally operating Thursday through Saturday nights, the Station’s programming has expanded to include:

  • First Monday Big Band, a pro rehearsal band, led by the University of Oregon’s Steve Owen, whose second set is open to student performers;
  • a once‑a‑month High School Jazz Band Concert Series produced by Jazz Station board member, educator, and flutist Jim Olsen;
  • an every‑other‑Wednesday Pro Jam sponsored by Sundance Market;
  • a Portland Artist Concert Series sponsored by Roaring Rapids Pizza of Springfield;
  • regular concerts by the University of Oregon Jazz Studies Department’s ensembles, students, and faculty.

All the tasks of keeping such a venue running smoothly are handled by a core group of about two dozen dedicated volunteers: door person, bar person (they offer local craft beers, ciders, and wine during performances), concert manager, cleanup, maintenance, bookkeeping, artist booking, and more.

Jazz Education

A key aspect of the Jazz Station’s mission is to educate local youth and adults about jazz to encourage new listeners, build membership, and support young jazz performers and the future of jazz music. Steve Owen, director of the University of Oregon School of Music and Dance’s Jazz Studies Department, has been an active supporter, board member, and performer at the Jazz Station since its inception. He considers the Jazz Station an invaluable resource for students seeking off-campus performance venues in a club setting. Owen regards the club format (informal, small scale, low stage, close proximity between players and listeners) as the quintessential concert venue for jazz. Many of his students (some of who have gone on to head prominent urban jazz organizations, play in international touring ensembles, and win Downbeat Magazine awards) have cut their musical teeth playing at the Jazz Station. I recently spoke with some of these players and they weighed in on the importance of the Jazz Station in their development as musicians.

University of Oregon Jazz Studies director Steve Owen

Doug Detrick of the Portland Jazz Composers’ Ensemble was involved in the early years of the Station. He was an active volunteer as well as performer. Detrick focused on more experimental work at the Station and found a supportive community of “folks from the UO, jazz players that were more or less self-taught, beginners, experts, weirdos, basically anyone that wanted a forum outside of what club gigs or concert venues were available.” For his personal development as an artist, Detrick says “it was really critical to have a place to present a show that wasn’t too expensive, and I knew would be supportive.”

Lyle Hopkins is a double bassist, composer, and educator based in Vancouver, British Columbia. While completing his master’s degree in jazz studies at the UO, the Station provided him with significant opportunities to develop as a performer, educator, and arts administrator. A volunteer at the Willamette Jazz Society as well as performer at the Station, Hopkins put time in as Bookings vice-chair, market liaison, and member of the organization’s Corporate Sponsorship Committee.

“The collaborative relationship between the Willamette Jazz Society and the University of Oregon not only enriches the jazz studies program at the university,” he says, “but also the arts community of Eugene as a whole.”

Broad Range

Recently, I attended three concerts at the club to get reacquainted with the space and the range of professional artists that the station features. Flutist Jim Olsen (an educator at Springfield’s Academy of Arts and Academics) teamed up with an all‑star cast of UO graduates—pianist Torrey Newhart (fellow A3 educator), bassist Sean Peterson, and drummer Ken Mastrogiovanni—for an evening of jazz standards and original compositions. Olsen, who eschews the freight‑train tone and feline caterwauling of Jeremy Steig in favor of Herbie Mann’s more laid‑back style, played crisp, no-nonsense solos built from rhythmic and harmonic fragments that rode comfortably on the back of the chord progressions. In the first set, Olsen suffered periodically from a poorly placed microphone and a low line level to the PA, issues corrected by volunteer soundman Jim Carlson, who arrived part way into the first set.

Standouts from the evening included Olsen’s original composition “Wistful,” a pensive, long‑tone melody with half‑time bass comping and piano accents floating on Mastrogiovanni’s sizzling ride cymbal. Piano doubling of the flute line really helped the tune pop.

Jazz flutist Jim Olsen

Newhart’s “Hideaway Mermaid Nation”— which he calls a kind of “dudes in paradise” musical fantasy—highlighted the musical personalities of the rhythm section. While Olsen finessed the tune, Newhart masterfully stutter‑stumbled through the changes with bassist and drummer hot on his heels. Mastrogiovanni kicked in some tasty bombs and rim shots in a snareless, toms‑heavy, controlled-chaos solo. Throughout the evening these cats were more than comfortable with each other and provided a tight background tapestry for the choice rhythmic and harmonic figurative gems that Olsen wove into it.

On September 19, the Lloyd Tolbert Band came to the Jazz Station for a night of hot Chicago blues and West Coast and Jump blues styles. Blues harp player Lloyd Tolbert, champion at the 2010 Pacific Northwest Harmonica Jamboree, has been a Eugene blues scene stalwart for years. With him were RJ Herb on guitar, Rick “Meter Man” Markstrom on drums, Michael Hatgis on bass, and guests Byron Case on guitar and Skip Jones on piano.

Tolbert sang many of the tunes throughout the night with a warm, friendly bari-tenor that got stronger and stronger as the concert progressed. His harp playing, starting out on the first tune as a sleepy locomotive, ramped up to a huffing and puffing powerhouse of licks and shuffles. He wasn’t afraid to explore the spooky basement of his harp. Tolbert employed a very expressive right hand, shaping deep draws and pulling captivating language from his reeds.

The rhythm section kept it steady and dependable with a surprise vocal stint by Markstrom that revealed his deep suede tenor. Throughout the evening, RJ Herb punched out biting, close position solos (recalling BB King at his toughest), salt and peppering his chord‑based soloing with Telecaster‑esque pecking and scratching. In pleasing contrast, Byron Case’s slinky Stratocaster sang sweetly and moaned sexily in lyrical solos of understated skill.

Lloyd Tolbert Band at Eugene’s Jazz Station. Photo: Daniel Heila

At one point, Skip Jones took control of the band, an odd behavior for a guest performer, telling them to tone it down, and called the next few tunes. Later, Jones told the other players to “take a break” so he could boogie‑woogie “like they do down in New Orleans.” Unfortunately, this put a damper on frontman Tolbert’s further contribution. It would have been more appropriate for Tolbert to introduce Jones and have him play a boogie‑woogie as a short showcase. Jones nevertheless gave the perfectly out‑of‑tune piano a workout.

On September 22, saxophonist Tristan Weitkamp, a Northwest native, brought his quintet to the Station for an evening of tunes influenced by as well as penned by South African jazz musicians he met during an extended visit to Cape Town. Tagging along, and bringing several audience members with them, was the Harrison Richter Quartet. This group of talented youngsters (some of them fresh out of high school) are all associated with Weitkamp through his teaching studio and proved to be a very satisfying opening act. Joining Harrison’s technically exact, but rhythmically morphic pianism were Noah Weinberg on guitar, Nathan Dwornicki on bass, and sitting in from Weitkamp’s band, Andre Swartz on drums. The band excelled on “When Will the Blues Leave” by Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter’s “Iris,” and “All the Things You Are” by Jerome Kern.

The upstart ensemble has a thing for textures and arrangements that open up spaces where you wouldn’t expect them. Swartz’s exquisite sense of time and texture really allowed the boys to step up their game and once, when they got a bit lost in the space and laissez faire of Johnny Green’s “Body and Soul,” he was able to call them back together. On Herbie Hancock’s “Oliloqui Valley,” bassist Dwornicki grooved deeply in a movable, closed-position solo that had him jumping up and down the neck of his beast to excellent effect. Harrison’s ability to play between the beats countered his rather dry, but excellent technique and crystalline arpeggiations. Weinberg, in his turn, shone on Kern’s classic tune with inverted voicings and angular, disjunct bursts stitched together with lyrical threads. However, his tone throughout the evening was a bit self‑conscious, muffled and monochrome—neck pickup, tone knob turned low, treble suppressed (strange settings to use on what appeared to be a tube amp). This quality made him stand out in a strangely discomforting way from the rest of the players. Too much cool whip, not enough oil and vinegar.

Tristan Weitkamp Quintet at the Jazz Station. Photo: Daniel Heila

Weitkamp’s quintet blew a fresh wind through the house with world class ensemble energy, brilliant solo expressions, and an energetic stage presence that put an electric charge in the air. Soloists took their time waiting to drop in to the changes, with a liberal amount of playful give and take. Trumpeter Justin Copeland was especially focused in his solo efforts, visibly vetting each statement with his ear before playing. Pianist David Kim brought a lusty, full throated sound that favored the lower register of the keyboard, repeatedly thumbing out rumbling, up‑down glissandi in that territory. Weitkamp, for his part, knocked out solid heads with Copeland and extended his trad‑jazz style by smearing and sliding around in the upper register, squeezing out oily residual sounds to exhilarating effect. Bassist Perry Thoorsell fell into his own reality while soloing, exhibiting a solid knowledge of the neck’s geography, quoting pop and classical tunes and chestnuts (intentionally or otherwise) with a brilliant thumb position technique in the higher registers. After each of his solos, he glanced up, blinking at his fellow players as if emerging from a cave after long submersion: introvert bass players run deep.

The evening’s star was drummer Andre Swartz, who sat in with the Richter quartet. The Cape Town, South Africa native met Weitkamp there during his visit. They developed a musical friendship and when Swartz relocated to Colorado, the two made sure to get some gigging done together.

Swartz is a stick master, wonderful to behold. At one point, holding two bunches of thin sticks loosely in each hand, he let the indeterminate noises that resulted from the awkward maneuvering become part of the sound. Especially satisfying were his solos with bare‑handed technique on the toms and the disengaged snare. He contributed a few songs to the evening with “In the Shadow of Table Mountain” an exceptional tune. The band went all in with this tune (which celebrates a legendary landscape feature of Cape Town) and the passion was evident when Swartz had to take a moment to compose himself, face in towel, at the end of the performance.

From local, talented-amateur players and seasoned pros to gifted young artists and inspiring international collaboration, the Jazz Station pulls together a solid roster of performers every season for the Eugene community’s benefit. Station volunteers are working hard to continue its legacy into the coming years and the nonprofit organization that runs it is asking for help via donations, memberships, and volunteer involvement. Thursday’s Jazz Rent Party RSVP fundraising event–with guest artists including Paul Krueger, Gus Russell, Laurie Hammond, Chris Orsinger, Roger Woods, and Abe Luedtke— is a prime way to enjoy what the Station has to offer and, at the same time, raise money for this exceptional organization that works so hard to enrich the cultural fabric of Eugene.

Follow this link before 10/4 to find out more about the Jazz Rent Party fundraiser. Follow this link to become a supporting member of the Jazz Station.

Recommended upcoming Station performances include Hot Club of Eugene 10/6, Jessie Marquez 10/12, University of Oregon Jazz Combos 10/19. Keep up with Station programming at its online calendar.

Daniel Heila is a composer, flutist, and writer living in Eugene.

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