Jazz at the Stifel: Jamming with the Jazz Cats

by Laura Jackson Roberts

A few hours before we attended our first jazz night at Oglebay Institute’s Stifel Fine Arts Center, my husband initiated an unusual conversation.

“I’m going to wear my new blazer tonight,” he said. I replied that I’d simply been planning to wear nice jeans. He shook his head.

“Laura,” Shawn said. “This is jazz. You don’t show up like a bum.”

Jazz Isn’t My Thing?

That wasn’t my only hesitation about jazz night. When we met 16 years ago, one of the first things I learned about my future husband was that he liked jazz. I had a basic grasp of its rich history and cultural significance. My family is from New Orleans, the original home of jazz, and I’d heard my Grandad’s records as a child. He loved big-band jazz music. But it never sat very high on my favorites list. In fact, I went out of my way to avoid jazz if I could. It wasn’t my thing.

Catfish and Jazz

On one of our early dates, Shawn took me catfishing with some friends. It was a balmy June night and we anchored the boat and tossed out the lines. The minute they turned on the jazz music, I wanted throw myself overboard. It was an all-out assault on my senses. I came from a classical music background where I learned to play Mozart, Chopin, and Beethoven on the piano. Classical music fit my Type A personality. It follows a pattern, a series of crescendos and decrescendos. It flows like a mountain river, over waterfalls and into quiet pools. Jazz, on the other hand, behaves like a toddler. It runs wild. It throws things at you that you’re not expecting. It goes on and on and on. And it’s loud. Classical music speaks to you. Jazz talks at you, and it’s up to you how you interpret what you hear.

Since that night on the boat, my husband has played a lot of jazz for me, and I’ve grown to understand it a bit more. Still, as I sat at the Stifel Fine Arts Center, I remembered that night on the boat, how relaxed everyone had been as they nodded their heads and tapped their feet while I struggled to hear a melody and thought too hard about the words. Truthfully, jazz and I have an uneasy truce, and I hoped my Oglebay Institute assignment wasn’t going to overwhelm me.

Jazz is Rich and Complex

The history and definitions of jazz are so rich and complex that they won’t fit on a blog. But the genre draws on a huge variety of cultures, with West African, African-American and European-American influences. Jazz incorporates swing and blues and ragtime, among others, and true to its designation as an original art form, it can’t quite be pinned down. The thing that you need to know about jazz is that it’s all about the performance. Musicians take turns improvising. They riff and wail and dance around.

The Boilermaker Jazz Band

The Boilermaker Jazz Band hails from Pittsburgh. Just as Shawn had predicted, they were dressed to the nines. I saw a clarinet, sax, trombone, upright bass, piano, and percussion. The room was packed. We sat with local jazz-lovers Peggy and Jeff Aland. Jeff told me that they came often enough last year that they decided to get season tickets. Shawn immediately struck up a conversation about favorite jazz artists and concerts; they were jazz afficionados, to be sure.

The Boilermakers played two sets: the first was the music of Benny Goodman, aka the King of Swing from the 1930s. Goodman was a swing jazz innovator. Though black and white musicians regularly played together in urban clubs, Goodman brought the collaboration out into the open. In fact, he brought it all the way to Carnegie Hall. Teddy Wilson, his pianist, was the first black musician to appear on such a stage with a white band. The Boilermakers regard Wilson as the “Jackie Robinson of jazz.” The second set was the music of Duke Ellington, an African-American originator of big-band jazz considered one of the greatest jazz composers of all time. Rather than striving for perfect harmony, Ellington believed in letting each musician’s voice play against the others. He wrote music based upon the strength of his soloists.

Nodding Heads and Tapping Toes

The music was everything I’d been expecting: busy and talkative. I have to admit, it was a little much for me at first. Looking around, I saw nodding heads and tapping toes. Shawn looked as relaxed and pleasant as I’ve seen him, but I was on assignment, and I took notes.

My mind wandered often during that first song, and indeed, during the second. But gradually, the music began to play less of a background role, and I put my pen down. I found myself noticing a particular piano solo. It sparked a clear memory: I remembered playing that same piano at a recital at Stifel when I was eight. But this pianist’s fingers moved like they were possessed.

Jazz as a Multi-Sensory Experience

Each musician played solos. Just as Duke Ellington envisioned, the instruments took turns with one another rather than playing in a unified chorus. It wasn’t a symphony—it was a conversation. What’s more, I began to understand that the difference between just tolerating jazz and enjoying jazz comes down to a question of proximity: to appreciate the music, you really need to be in the audience. On a fishing boat, only your sense of hearing experiences the music. When you’re sitting in front of the band, however, you can hear the music, see the music, feel the music as it happens. The room vibrates, the air gets warm. And this multi-sensory experience makes all the difference.

Indeed, the performance is the thing with jazz. It’s the soul of the music. I watched how the trombone-player closed his eyes during his solos, how the clarinet-player hopped around and snapped his fingers as he stood aside for each instrument to take its turn. And when the vocalist, Jennifer McNulty, came to the stage, she gave the spotlight to the instrumental solos when she wasn’t singing.
There was no winner, no front-runner. They carried on together.

Jamming with the Jazz Cats

Halfway through the first set. I looked around and the entire audience was moving. Not a single person sat still. Heads bobbed, fingers drummed, legs and feet jumped. They applauded every solo. I glanced at Shawn, and he smirked at me.

“What?” I mouthed.

“You,” he said. “I thought jazz wasn’t your thing.” He pointed at my knee and I saw my right leg bounce up and down. I was jamming. With the jazz cats.

During the second set, I moved to a table in the front of the room so I could sit as close to the musicians as possible and really let their performance lead the conversation. I thought about my grandad back in the Jazz Age, living in New Orleans as this art form blew the lid off the music world. What must it have been like to hear it pouring out from every club? How did the energy feel? Perhaps when he played his records on his turn table for me when I was small, he could still see the musicians and hear their conversation.

Shawn was right about jazz concerts. You don’t go and sit like a bum. You actively participate. You let the musicians speak to you. After all, it’s been a century of musical evolution. They have a lot to say.

Jazz at the Stifel April 14 with Neon Swing X-perience

Want to check out a jazz show yourself? Jazz at the Stifel presents Neon Swing X-perience (NSX) at 8 p.m. Saturday, April 14.

NSX jumps, jives and rocks and performs regularly at one of Pittsburgh’s swankiest jazz clubs– NOLA on the Square. NSX performs vintage American genres such as swing, rockabilly, hot jazz, horn rock and blues. Described as “swing with sting,” NSX’s style is a rowdy modernization of multiple influences all rooted in the big bands of the 1930s and 1940s.

In addition to shows at NOLA on the Square, the group has performed at some of the hippest locales in the United States including Central Park in New York City, the legendary Derby in Hollywood and the world’s biggest rockabilly festival –Viva Las Vegas.

Tickets are $20. Purchase tickets online or call 304-242-7700.