Testing the Jazz Waters in Tempe
People think they have to know a lot about jazz to enjoy a concert, according to Woody Wilson. But that’s not true, he says. “You don’t have to know anything about jazz to appreciate it.”
He’s speaking from experience, as the president of a Tempe music organization called Lakeshore Music, which has presented more than 100 concerts at Tempe Center for the Arts.
“We see a lot of diehard jazz fans come through the door,” he says. “But more and more people are coming just to enjoy a relaxing night by the lake.”
He’s hoping they’ll get hooked on jazz, of course.
He’s seen it happen before.
Look for Carmela Ramirez (center), a longtime staple of the Valley jazz scene, in November.
“Mill Avenue used to have a thriving jazz scene with a lot of live music,” he recalls of Tempe well over a decade ago. But something changed. “When bands got experimental, the jazz was gone.”
Wilson recalls hatching a plan with two friends, then enlisting the help of Michael Monti. His family founded the Monti’s La Casa Vieja steakhouse that closed in 2014.
“We saw it as our job to bring jazz back,” Wilson says.
Monti let them have concerts in the banquet room. And plenty of local jazz greats, from Margo Reed to Jerry Donato, performed at the restaurant. “All the great local artists came through there,” Wilson says.
The Tempe arts landscape changed in 2007, the year Wilson and his friends launched their Jam’n Jazz community music series at Monti’s.
That’s when the city opened a new cultural facility called Tempe Center for the Arts. “At first, they didn’t have any programming, so the Friends of TCA asked us if we’d like to come do a pilot program.”
Turns out, the Friends of Tempe Center for the Arts, an all-volunteer support organization, has helped to seed several of the venue’s programs through the years – in music, theater, dance, art education, and more.
Wilson recalls the jazz pilot program launching at TCA in 2008. The following year, he created Lakeshore Music, the nonprofit that’s still presenting jazz music at the center today.
He’s hoping the series will help more people experience jazz for the first time, even if they’re not well-versed in classical and contemporary jazz.
“We’re really excited to be promoting this great American art form,” Wilson says.
The Hot Club of San Francisco will perform in Tempe in March 2020.
The series runs from September to May each year, with one concert per month. They’re performed inside the Lakeshore Room, an intimate venue for 200 people with three walls made of windows that look out over Tempe Town Lake.
The long list of artists who’ve performed there include Bill Childs, Arturo O’Farrell, Benny Green, Renee Rosnes, Snarky Puppy, Omar Sosa, Tierney Sutton, and Turtle Island Quartet. Next up is the Sean Jones Quartet, led by a trumpeter who performed for many years with Wynton Marsalis.
Wilson says things have changed since Lakeshore Music launched 10 years ago.
“The age of our audience is getting younger,” he says. “We’re seeing people who come for the whole experience rather than focusing solely on jazz.”
The lakeside views are a plus, but so is the venue’s bar, where people can get drinks and small bites. “For a lot of people, it’s a great meeting place and social scene.”
Hence, Wilson’s conviction that you needn’t be a jazz lover to dig it.
“People may not know anything about the local jazz scene,” Wilson says. “They can still have a great time here.”
Sean Jones Quartet are scheduled to perform on Friday, October 26, at Tempe Center for the Arts. Tickets are $32 to $40 via Ticketforce.
Lynn Trimble is an award-winning freelance writer and photographer specializing in arts and culture, including visual and performing arts