Back in the middle part of the last century, when jazz was still in the mainstream of popular music, Springfield served as host to some of the genre's legendary performers.
Duke Ellington made several trips to the capital city, including a show at the Orpheum Theatre in 1939. Miles Davis played one of his first professional road gigs here in 1944, getting called up from his home in East St. Louis as a last minute replacement for a touring band's trumpet player. Then there's Louis Armstrong who came to town twice in 1958 - to the state fair in August and few months later to play at the Springfield High auditorium. Armstrong's influence is still heard in the local jazz scene today - although it comes by way of his hometown.
"We call him Pops. To all the trumpet players in New Orleans, Louis Armstrong was the cat. Even today everybody considers Louis the man," Frank Parker said.
Parker, 60, was born when the music was still in its heyday in a town known as the Birthplace of Jazz, and into a family with a deep love of music.
"I grew up in a house where classical music was playing all the time. And gospel, because my people are really into church," he said.
Parker started playing trumpet when he was about 6, but stresses often that he's still learning to this day. He eventually discovered jazz and began playing on Bourbon Street at around age 16.
"It was stuff like 'When the Saints Go Marching In.' I wasn't that great, but I got into it," he said.
Parker arrived in Springfield in 1986. He's carrying on the tradition of Satchmo while doing his part to revive the local scene. Jazz is no longer in the mainstream, a fact that contributes heavily to its fringe status, both locally and throughout the world. While most of the bars today favor classic rock to bebop, it's not for lack of local talent.
"Springfield has always had lot of great jazz musicians," he said.
Norb Andy's and the Green Turtle were the hot spots for jazz when Parker first came to town. There he caught guys like David Hoffman and Henry Miles, and introduced himself into the scene.
The Green Turtle is gone now, and Norb Andy's only recently returned to the local jazz circuit. Other night spots where the music can be heard on a regular basis these days include Lime Street Cafe, a regular stop for the Dixieland band, Riverboat 5+1. Robbie's Restaurant hosts the Springfield Area Arts Council's Uptown Friday Night Series. And since last fall, Remy's on Monroe has been offering jazz every weekend, catering to a crowd that likes its jazz in a cosmopolitan setting.
Parker plays at various places around town, but his regular gig is the Jambalaya Jam, which he hosts every Monday evening at the Brewhaus. To his knowledge, it's the city's first open-mic night for jazz, and they've been doing it now for about three years, with anywhere from four to 15 musicians stopping by to sit in on a given night.
The crowd that comes out to listen to the jam skews a little older than what is typically found in a downtown bar. Parker realizes that jazz is a tough draw for establishments looking to draw the "going out" crowd.
"As far as the jazz goes, it's still kind of a hard push. But it's like that everywhere. We get some kids here (at Brewhaus), especially some of the kids learning how to play out at Lincoln Land," Parker said.
To get more people out, Parker is hoping to build on a familiar tradition with a distinct jazz flavor. Every year he tells friends that he's going to return to his hometown for Mardi Gras, and every year he ends up staying put. The reason: He's committed to bringing a bigger taste of the quintessential New Orleans celebration to Springfield.
Springfield Mardi Gras is a non-profit organization co-founded by Parker that stages events around Fat Tuesday. It includes a pub crawl led by a brass band that he assembles to lead revelers around downtown establishments. He'd like to get more people, and more bar owners, in on the party. The group is also hoping to raise money through memberships and sponsorships so they can attract some outside talent for the occasion and turn it in to a city-wide happening.
Trompeter on the sax
Mardi Gras and New Orleans are heavily associated with Dixieland, a brass-oriented style of jazz. As with most musical genres, jazz comprises many different styles: ragtime, swing and bebop in the first part of the last century begot experimental, fusion and smooth jazz later on. Or maybe it didn't. As is also common in musical genres, there are purists who want to narrow the definition of jazz, an attempt to protect its integrity and fend off interlopers.
Frank Trompeter is more accommodating, both of jazz's rich history and its ever-evolving spectrum of sounds. In his definition, two of three criterion must be present.
"Is it a jazz song? Is the artist a jazz artist? Is the song played in a jazz style? So we're jazz musicians and we're playing a jazz song. So even though we're playing it in a funk style, that's still two out of three so I'd call that jazz," Trompeter said.
The "we" he's speaking of his group, the Frank Trompeter Quintet. The combo was formed in 1993, and its music incorporates elements of funk, ska and reggae into more traditional jazz standards and originals. Trompeter also performs with Blues Expressions and the End Times Trio, a group that experiments with avant-garde jazz.
Trompeter hails from Chicago, like New Orleans a longtime hotbed of jazz. He plays tenor, alto and soprano saxophone, along with some occasional turns on vocals. In jazz, he's found a form of self-expression that, for him, is missing in other types of music.
"Jazz songs have a complexity that you don't find in contemporary popular music. I do a lot more exotic stuff than the saxophonist in the rock band who's stuck playing the Clarence Clemons solo when it comes to that time in the Bruce Springsteen song. It's more challenging in that the songs are less familiar and the style is more exotic."
While a rock or country musician may play the same chord for 30 or 40 seconds, in jazz the chords progress more quickly and employ more complex voicings. Despite the complexity, Trompeter said that jazz actually lends itself better to impromptu jamming. Because the music is more open-ended and fluid, musicians can sit in together with little or no rehearsal.
"The interesting thing about jazz is we're all playing from a canon of about 500 songs. There's a skill level that's required to do this. Somebody hands you the sheet with the chord pattern and tells you how fast they want to do it and names one of the top 12 styles common in jazz. These artists are all trained to go with it."
Trompeter and his mates play around town and have a standing happy hour set on Friday nights at Marly's Pub. Marly's typically caters to a younger crowd with its live music, but it's helped Trompeter tap into a new audience, and some of the bar's regulars discover a new way to appreciate live music.
"I've had 20-somethings tell me they like coming to Marly's during happy hour because it's not so loud and they can talk. They can both listen to music and enjoy the company they're with," Trompeter said.
Traditionally, the smoke-filled gin joint is almost synonymous with hot and cool jazz. Trompeter thinks live music in Springfield is still suffering a bit from the smoking ban. But he and Parker and many other local musicians are still out there making the scene and keeping the spirit of jazz alive.
On the airwaves
In addition to weekly live performances, jazz is also alive and well on Springfield's airwaves. WQNA-FM 88.3 broadcasts several programs, hosted by local music lovers, that feature jazz in its various styles:
3 p.m. Jazz Now and Then with Larry Corley
9 p.m. Jazz Take Out with Deb Kennedy
Tribute to band member
The Frank Trompeter Quintet is releasing a CD expected to be available in February. Recorded live over several performances at Marly's Pub, "Live at Gnarly's" has turned into a tribute of sorts to John Peterson, the group's bassist who passed away last December at the age of 30. The CD includes a bonus track featuring Peterson's work. Peterson, who studied at Berklee College of Music in Boston, was a popular local musician who also played with the bands Soulfield and Gypsy Collabo.
Story published Friday, March 5, 2010 ( Volume 5, Number 2 )