by Leah Sottile

At about 9 o'clock, polite conversation and the scraping of silverware on ceramic china slowly drowns in the thick-as-molasses plunk of an upright bass. A snare slowly pats in time, and gentle piano keys plink notes suggestive of warm Friday evenings and dry martinis. The music speaks an ageless language, and all ears perk toward the front of the house. The toes of business suit-clad middle-agers tap in sync with those of refined young hepcats.

It's a Polaroid picture of any Friday night in New York City, Rome and Cape Town where the last drop of jazz falls at midnight. But tonight, and every weekend, it's in Spokane.

Unbeknownst to most, local jazz musicians say that Spokane -- for its small size -- possesses the makings of a first-rate jazz scene, and has for quite some time. Jazz has always been here, but the scene's popularity locally seems to fluctuate more often than in larger cities. While more mainstream music like rock and country can always expect a consistent audience, even the smallest amount of disinterest can put unhealthy dents in Spokane's jazz framework.

"(Audiences) understand the rock beat and rap lyrics and all that stuff, but when it comes to fine arts you don't find as much appreciation and understanding of it," says Dan Keberle, director of the Spokane Jazz Orchestra.

With a handful of live music venues and bars popping up around downtown Spokane, the jazz scene is starting to see an upswing in audiences and live venues -- two essential facets of any music scene.

Now with two operating live jazz venues, a 29-year old jazz organization and the presence of an internationally recognized guest conductor, local members of the scene are hoping that jazz is here to stay.

Upstage Supper Club -- When Tim Behrens and Leslie Ann Grove were looking for a niche they could fill in Spokane's arts scene, they kept thinking about how much they missed Hobart's -- a jazz club that shut its doors permanently on Jan. 1, 2001. After its demise, jazz fans watched the musicians hop from one hotel lounge to another -- unfortunately finding more closed doors than open ones.

Keberle says that in order to have a successful jazz scene, musicians need a place to play where anyone, regardless of their age or knowledge of jazz, can listen.

"It was obvious that Spokane lacked a 'home' for the outstanding jazz musicians in the area to regularly perform in a casual atmosphere," Grove says of her decision, along with Behrens and executive chef Kile Tansy, to make part of their dinner theater into a regular jazz venue.

In the process of opening a dinner theatre through the nonprofit organization ACT I (A Community Theatre I), Grove, Behrens and Tansy decided to utilize the entire 1910 Odd Fellows Hall. They transformed the upstairs room into a swanky supper club with live jazz on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, and made the dinner theater function on the center floor of the historical building.

"We opted for the format 'supper club'... to entice people who might not normally come to hear jazz," Grove says. "We thought this would be a benefit to those who would normally come to hear jazz, too, because we enhance the graciousness of their experience."

Grove says that because Upstage functions primarily as a restaurant that incidentally features live jazz, the music is open to ears of all ages. Past jazz venues that functioned as bars or in hotel lounges often ran into a financial trouble -- something that Upstage hopes to avoid with its broader audience base.

"Sometimes all it takes is for one establishment to stick a toe in the water. Others get inspired to give it a try, and often they find a way to make live music work for them and for the musicians," Grove says.

While having Upstage is good for the Spokane scene, even Grove says there are some drawbacks to the venue's small size and restaurant-centered format. While the non-smoking atmosphere and the intimate size of the club are attractive to some patrons, Grove says she's seen customers leave because they can't smoke a cigarette or dance to "their" jazz.

For those who are pickier about their jazz, in other words, it's enough to turn them away.

More Than a Club -- While having a flourishing jazz club often has a large hand in the longevity of a scene's life, jazz must have other factors contributing to it to keep a steady fan base and influx of money.

Jazz is a larger part of Spokane's urban culture than most people realize -- and has been for nearly 30 years. The Spokane Jazz Orchestra and the Spokane Jazz Society have been around since the mid-1970s. In fact, the SJO is the oldest, continually performing, professional community-supported jazz orchestra in the entire Western Hemisphere.

"(The SJO) is something you can point to and say that Spokane is doing better than some towns," he says.

Better is an understatement. Now in its 28th season, the group currently is working with Guest Conductor Gunther Schuller -- a global authority on the worldwide jazz spectrum. In past years, the SJO has played with Mel Torm & eacute;, Dizzy Gillespie, Ben E. King, Diana Krall and other famous jazz musicians.

Craig Volosing, the founder of the SJO and the current development director, says that with the improvement of local high school and college programs, the group has seen an increase in audience interest.

"With a constant infusion of such new and accomplished talent, the orchestra has always seemed fresh and evolving," he says. "Though there were periods of high artistic achievement in the first twenty years, it has been during this last nine years that the SJO has enjoyed truly consistent artistic growth."

With a governing Board of Directors comprised of teachers, lawyers and musicians, the SJO provides a diverse selection of jazz music to audiences up to eight times a year -- ranging in styles from Dixieland to swing.

"(SJO) helps make the region far more "hip" than it would be otherwise," Volosing says.

Mainstream Jazz in Spokane? -- "The musicians who live in Spokane -- we're all pretty busy. The musicianship here is just as good at any major center," Gary Edighoffer, former promoter for Hobart's and current planner for Thursday jazz at The Chapter. "There's just a real vibrant music scene in Spokane. I think that when people say that there is nothing going on in Spokane, they are totally in the dark."

The musicians will keep playing -- but they need a steady audience to construct a justifiable scene. Jazz fans, unlike listeners of other musical genres, cannot be categorized and filed -- people find themselves becoming jazz buffs because of the music's blurred and continually changing borders. Even with the same players, you'll never see the same jazz performance twice.

And just like the music, no two fans are the same -- making the jazz industry a difficult one to market.

"Jazz lovers are not stuffable into one category," Grove says. "Some want standards. Some want straight-ahead. Some want progressive. Some want innovative. Some want on-the-edge. How does all this diversity happen? By jazz lovers asking for it, then supporting it with their pocketbooks."

Spokane may never be a place where jazz musicians can earn a steady paycheck solely from recording and performing music, but then few cities are. Yet Spokane still has the potential to make jazz a focal point of local nightlife -- all it needs is just a few more dollars, a few more jazz-friendly venues and a few more sets of clapping hands.

Publication date: 03/11/04

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About The Author

Leah Sottile

Leah Sottile is a Spokane-based freelance writer who formerly served as music editor, culture editor and a staff writer at the Inlander. She has written about everything from nuns and Elvis impersonators, to jailhouse murders and mental health...