Back When: All that jazz

Posted on Saturday, May 17, 2014 at 5:32 pm

Stuart “Stu” Green’s recent invitation to a Pigeon Forge jazz jam at first left me a bit unsure – mostly because of my being practically ignorant of that music form. With my musical likings stretching from Motown, classic rock and roll, big band, western swing, Simon and Garfunkel, Flat and Scruggs, Hank Williams, Wallace Coleman’s blues, and even some classical music, I figured that I had the musical thing covered. I was wrong again.

But after having known the Green family for nearly a half-century, and knowing that there is ample musical talent in the family, attending a jazz jam wasn’t that much of an effort to make and I was soon on my way to Pigeon Forge. Arriving at the impressive and gated Sherwood Forest Resort on a Friday afternoon more than convinced me that I was in above my pay grade.

Having done some quick research on jazz, I found that it was difficult to define, but that it was born in America, with African and European roots – and that it comes in a number of variations – which left me knowing little more than when I started. Very popular in the 1940s, jazz bred the development of many other musical styles that are very popular today, while some musicians remain staunch fans of the classical style.

With the event being held in the resort’s impressive log Nottingham Lodge, and in an effort to not embarrass Stuart, I struck my finest “jazz expert” pose and headed inside. Not knowing a soul, I overheard some seemingly very intelligent conversations being made in some non-southern dialects, and reasoned that this wasn’t the time to open my mouth. Heading to the kitchen for some water, I found Stuart (or ‘Stu’ as he’s now commonly called) slaving over several pots of jambalaya that he was preparing for the crowd. With Louisiana roots, but raised in Tennessee, Stu talks like me, so I could finally relax.

There are a million guitar players, many of whom get by quite well by knowing three chords, but there are others who try to find the very limit of their instruments. Stu is of the latter group, and in an effort to broaden his skills, he began attending an annual Vermont jazz camp to be with other musicians of a similar mind. After several years at the camp, he developed a base of high grade musician friends from across the country and had invited them to this Tennessee get together.

“I always liked jazz, but I never thought that I’d be able to play it,” he told. “I always wanted to get more out of my guitar than I was getting, and at age 50 my path crossed with jazz guitar teacher Jeff Jenkins of Knoxville. Here at the jam, we mostly play what are called standards, but also tunes that are from the swing era like ‘Fly Me to the Moon’, and ballads like ‘Misty.’ We also play some bossa like ‘Girl From Ipanema’ and bebop like the Impressions did.”

Leaving Stu at his work, I found a group jamming and sat down to listen to find that these folks totally enjoy playing their music. In fact, during a song, someone might leave for a quick break to return on the same song and fall right back in place.

The only thing that broke their concentration was when a bear walked across the street in front of the lodge. Two ladies then headed out to find the bear – something I don’t recommend.

Back inside, and with the music continuing, I met a few of the folks.

Classy and friendly trumpet player Janelle Bradshaw is a teacher from Waterloo, New York, who has been playing jazz most of her life.

She explained that most of the folks on hand had met at the Vermont jazz camp, where they go to find musicians of the same sort.

“They put each group with a professional musician who is a monster role model and we end the camp with a concert,” she told.

Friendly cardiologist Jay Markham, from Amherst, Massachusetts, was another trumpet player, who shared a story of his family earlier having come from Poland and having Americanized their original name. Jay’s buddy, trumpet player Don Schauer, is a retired game warden from Westfield, Pennsylvania.

Wendy Kain, from Seneca Falls, New York, is an agricultural entomologist, which I assume is someone who kills bugs on farms, has played trombone through high school and college, and has advanced to playing with orchestras and bands.

“There aren’t that many jazz bands and they’re hard to get into,” she told.

Having just moved from Kentucky to Asheville, Suzanne Lee had crossed the mountains to play keyboard, along with Griff Verhey from Cereda, West Virginia. Along with Stuart on the guitar were Knoxville’s Jeff Jenkins and Tim Griffin from Alexandria, Virginia. East Northport, New York’s Fred Novometsky was handling the bass, while Peter Pemberton from Liberty Township, Ohio, was on the drums. The saxophones were represented by John Herzfield of Belmont, Massachusetts, who also played the flute, Mark Madden of Brooklyn, New York, and Rocco Muriale, who is also from Cereda.

So comfortable with his instrument that he was playing barefoot, Rocco is a restaurant owner who runs to his kitchen to cook, then returns to play for his patrons. He would be preparing prime rib for the following evening.

A high point of the evening was when White Pine’s Lance Cowan pulled in with 90 year-old J.W. Green and his daughter, Tina Henderson. A national treasure, J.W. is a master craftsman whose violins are found around the world. Surrounded by music and admirers, J.W. was in top form.

“What do you mean, ‘what do I play’,” he asked. “I’m going to tell you what I tell everybody. I play for money. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to the bathroom to brush my tooth.”

Following Stu’s tasty supper, we all settled in for some good music where I met Sandy McDonald from Morristown, and the resort ramrod, Cindy Ogle, who told that she’s normally not able to attend all the resort functions, but that she was certainly enjoying this night.

By my time to leave, we were all friends that music had brought together.

-Jim Claborne

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