Since the closing of the S&W on Gay Street, it's been hard to find a good spot to hear great jazz on a regular basis. Some terrific acts are playing around (Boling, Brown and Holloway at Baker-Peters, for instance), but, often, the musicians are treated like a background to dinner.
The best new spot to hear jazz in Knoxville may be Market Square on Tuesday nights.
"We wanted an outlet to play what we wanted and to push ourselves," says trumpeter Vance Thompson, leader of the Marble City 5, which performs on the Square from 8 to 10 p.m. on Tuesdays. "It's hard to imagine going into a restaurant and presenting music like this. You can't make it a performance in a restaurant. In a large venue like Market Square we have plenty of airspace to do our thing and space to sit down and pay attention, but there's space enough to mill around and ignore us if you're not into it."
Thompson is the founder of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, another act that sprang from an ambitious idea to become one of Knoxville's best assets.
The band is Thompson on trumpet, Keith Brown on keyboards, Kenneth Brown on drums, Greg Tardy on saxophone and Clint Mullican on bass, with Jamel Mitchell filling in when Tardy has to be out of town. The group performs a mixture of standards, originals and covers of songs by artists including Kenny Garrett, Roy Hargrove and Donald Brown.
The group began performing on the Square with a string of weekly shows in spring 2011. Initially, the group performed for tips and had no sound system.
Eddie Mannis, president of Prestige Cleaners, saw the group near the end of the 2011 season and offered to sponsor the event.
"They gave us a budget to pay the musicians and for the sound," says Thompson.
Thompson, himself, still gets his pay from the tip jar.
"Now everybody is miked and has monitors. It makes it a lot easier to play and for the audience can actually hear what's happening on stage. I really think it's helped build our audience. On a good night I'll look out and half the Square seems to be filled with people."
So far, the record-breaking heat hasn't affected the shows. Thompson says the group decided to start the shows at 8 p.m. rather than 7 p.m. after some hot nights last year.
"It's been pretty comfortable," says Thompson. "Last week it was warm, but not unbearably so. We'll probably have some hot nights before we're through, but so far so good."
During the school year, Knox County gave the group a grant to conduct school presentations. The band tailored each event to an elementary, middle school or high school audience. The group both performs and demonstrates how improvisational music comes together.
Not surprisingly, middle schoolers proved to be the biggest challenge.
"Some were good experiences and some were pandemonium," says Thompson. "(Even then) you'd still see some kids who were really excited about it. I always tried to look to those kids."
Both the school performances and the shows on Market Square may help find audiences who might have thought they didn't like jazz. And anyone looking for music on the Square since Sundown in the City ceased might find Tuesdays to be a nice surprise.
© 2012, Knoxville News Sentinel Co.
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