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Atlanta’s jazz scene is alive and well, even without Churchill Grounds

Churchill Grounds
Joe Gransden, shown here at Cafe 290, hosts a jazz jam every Tuesday at Venkman’s.

Photograph by Ben Rollins

For nearly two decades, the Atlanta jazz scene revolved around Churchill Grounds, a jazz bar nestled next to the Fox Theatre that presented music five nights a week. The late-night hangout occasionally drew musicians like trumpeter Wynton Marsalis and Lady Gaga, who dropped by after concerts in the city.

After the club’s spacious Whisper Room shuttered in 2014 due to a rent increase, musicians went back to performing near the door of the narrow, deep bar room, in front of a picture window, attracting glances from Midtown passersby. Two years later, the club closed after its lease expired, and the space became a VIP room for Fox Theatre patrons.

Instead of mourning the demise of the city’s jazz center, many of the musicians who sharpened their skills at Churchill began playing music throughout Atlanta. There are now 10 weekly jam sessions at venues inside the perimeter, placing Atlanta on comparable footing with more jazz-forward cities like Seattle.

Jam sessions typically begin with a short set by the house group. To perform with the band, guests pick out a piece of familiar jazz repertoire and ask the host for a shot onstage. While many performers are either session regulars or university jazz students, events also attract novices. Guitarist Jacob Deaton, who helms a session at Chairs in East Point, eases newbies into the experience by steering them away from complex songs and providing encouraging accompaniment on more straightforward 12-bar blues charts.

On a Sunday in September, the jazz crowd trickled into Chairs half an hour after Deaton’s quartet began playing standards like “On Green Dolphin Street” in an alcove adjacent to the bar. Patrons soon filled the once-deserted row of tables by the bar, chatting and drinking as they listened. A few musicians, instrument cases in tow, approached Deaton during a break. He said many of these East Point residents show up every week for a chance to hear live music.

Trumpeter Gordon Vernick, Georgia State University’s coordinator of jazz studies, sends his students out to these clubs to gain experience. And he invites many of his pupils to perform while hosting a Wednesday gathering at the Red Light Cafe, which usually attracts around 50 to 60 musicians and listeners.

“There are a lot of good, young musicians coming to town and coming of age,” Vernick says. “Right now, this is the best I’ve ever seen in terms of interest and places where you can hear music.”

This article appears in our December 2018 issue.

The ASO’s latest album will mark bassist Michael Kurth’s national debut as a symphonic composer

Atlanta Symphony Orchestra's Michael KurthMichael Kurth perches on a folding chair in a stuffy backstage room at Symphony Hall on the first of May, headphones snugged over a graying mop of black curls, grooving to music piped in from the stage. Recording engineers and Atlanta Symphony Orchestra staff huddle with him in a makeshift studio. Kurth, an ASO bassist by trade, occasionally references the printed orchestral score for his 2018 composition, Miserere.

After leading the orchestra and chorus through the first two movements, Music Director Robert Spano and a few performers enter the booth to discuss the sound. The composer offers some direction, and they return to the stage to make adjustments.

“I’ve lived with this music for so long,” the Maryland native says, explaining that his role during the recording sessions for his new album was to figure out “if what was coming through the headphones was a good match for my ideal soundtrack.”

“I really feel like I’m the luckiest composer in the world.”

The recording, due out in early 2019 on the ASO Media label, contains five originals written for orchestra—plus a piece composed for orchestra, chorus, and mezzo-soprano Kelley O’Connor—and could function as a demo tape, introducing the 47-year-old’s orchestral works to symphonies across the country. The recording is Kurth’s national debut as a symphonic composer, but he’s not quitting his day job; he begins his 25th season with the ASO on September 20.

Since the symphony performed his fanfare “May Cause Dizziness” in 2011, the group has commissioned and premiered five more of his melodic, polyphonic, and intensely rhythmic works. “Spano has opened doors and trusted me and championed me,” Kurth said.

He hopes the album opens the ears of conductors nationwide, though his music is already traveling beyond Atlanta. The Kansas City Symphony performs the four-movement A Thousand Words next month. “I really feel like I’m the luckiest composer in the world.”

This article appears in our September 2018 issue.

Jazz Age

When pianist Herbie Hancock gazed out over Piedmont Park on Memorial Day in 2007, there was barely a patch of grass unoccupied by picnic blankets or folding chairs. It was closing night of the three-day Atlanta Jazz Festival, and 100,000 people packed the park to celebrate the free event’s thirtieth anniversary. A year later, a relatively meager crowd wedged into Downtown’s Woodruff Park for just two days of concerts. The event had to be relocated due to drought, costing the festival thousands in lost sponsorship dollars. Organizers staged a “no-frills festival,” relying mostly on $120,000 in residual funds, says Camille Russell Love, director of the Office of Cultural Affairs. “I basically told my staff, we’re going to create a festival that we can afford to create,” she says. “We’ll use local artists, but we won’t lose the momentum of the festival.”

Photograph of 29th Street Saxophone Quartet, 1988, by Susan Ross; view a gallery of more performers from throughout the festival’s history

As the event marks its thirty-fifth anniversary this month, momentum is rolling again. Private donations and grants are up, and city funding is back after drying up completely in the early 2000s. Organizers are predicting daily attendance of up to 75,000 (versus 50,000 in 2011) and revenue of $500,000 (versus $315,000 in 2011). Cyrus Chestnut, an internationally known pianist who will make his third appearance this year, ranks Atlanta’s celebration near the top. “The Atlanta Jazz Festival has always been one of the signature festivals in the United States,” he says. “It is a major stop.”

Ebbs and flows have characterized the festival’s entire history. In June 1978, jazz lover Mayor Maynard Jackson inaugurated the event. With a plush budget and full support from city government, the festival could pay upwards of $30,000 to bring in legendary artists like Miles Davis and Sarah Vaughan. But city funding plummeted during the early 1990s, when director John Armwood had to bank on personal connections to lure national artists like Abbey Lincoln, Jackie McLean, and the Harper Brothers, often for just a few thousand dollars. By the late 1990s, with funding from the city’s hotel-motel tax, the event was flush again. The Office of Cultural Affairs received more than $1 million annually to stage the Jazz Festival and Atlanta’s now-defunct Montreux Jazz Festival.

>> MAY 26–28: The thirty-fifth festival returns to Piedmont Park, with two stages featuring international and local artists as well as youth jazz bands. Most events are free. Headliners include Chestnut, along with Roy Ayers, Tito Puente Jr., and Robert Glasper. Every day this month, local artists also perform in area venues as part of the 31 Days of Jazz program.

It is ironic that a city not known for jazz has such a well-known festival. But Armwood, a longtime announcer for Jazz 91.1 WCLK, notes that though the local jazz scene has been small, it’s been consistent. The vibe dates back to the 1960s, when Paschal’s La Carousel Lounge hosted legends like Quincy Jones and Jimmy Smith. Local clubs such as Churchill Grounds and Cafe 290 have drawn loyal audiences for decades.

Atlanta-based trumpeter Melvin Jones credits the festival with generating community awareness that benefits local artists. “The festival,” he says, “is a way to pronounce to the world that the musical culture of this city has a very strong live component outside of pop, R&B, gospel, and hip-hop.”

Russell Love agrees: “The jazz festival is our way of making sure we give [the audience] not just the hip-hop that pervades Atlanta.” For at least one month a year, Atlanta becomes a jazz town.

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