Jazz in the City: A Movie Premier, Jazz Royalty and the Jazz Future

Emily Mathis and Band, Square Room, Knoxville, September 2011

A large crown of lucky people enjoyed a brilliant night of jazz and saw the premiere of the documentary movie “A Place for Me: Living Jazz in a Small Southern City” on Tuesday night. The Square Room hosted the event and the music began at 7:00 with Emily Mathis and her band singing her smooth, though sometimes aggressive version of the featured genre. As is usually the case with the Square Room, the acoustics were superb and the venue was a perfect fit for the performances. It truly is a “listening” room.

Emily Mathis, Square Room, Knoxville

Rocky Wynder joins Emily Mathis on stage, Square Room, Knoxville

As she completed her set, Emily brought 82 year old Jazz legend, Rocky Wynder onto the stage to sit in with the band on saxophone. Rocky was born in Pensacola but became a part of Knoxville Jazz history beginning in 1950. “Spry” is the irresistible word to use when describing Rocky who wore black dress pants and white running shoes. His playing shows no sign of age unless it is in the mature, road-worn impeccable timing and smooth tones emanating from his black saxophone.

Donald Brown kept the night moving

Donald Brown MC’d the event and took the stage at around 8:00 to introduce the documentary. Wonderfully and lovingly crafted, the movie details the early days of jazz in Knoxville in the 1920’s and brings it forward through the decades. Ashley Capps, Jack Neely and Bill Scarlett are featured throughout and the three, though particularly Neely, keep the narrative thread moving. The local jazz scene took a leap forward in the 1950s with Rocky Wynder and Lance Owens. Bill Scarlett arrived later and the UT Jazz Giants were formed. The addition of a Jazz major at UT in the 1970s and the advent of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra under the leadership of Vance Thompson were also critical to nurturing this small community of musicians.

Thad Brown (on Drums) Band, Square Room, Knoxville, Septembe 2011

Thad Brown Band, Square Room, Knoxville

After the film, which was very warmly received, Thad Brown and his band played their version of jazz, which bordered on jazz-fusion at times, but always veered back toward the jazz end of that spectrum. Their sounds were hypnotic and borrowed from ancient Chinese music forms as well as other non-jazz sources as they unfolded their own unique vision on the stage. Creative beyond description, I was tentative at first, but was completely won over by the end of their set.

Nu Jazz 4tet, Square Room, Knoxville, September 2011

Donald Brown on bass, Keith Brown on piano with Rocky Wynder

The Nu Jazz 4tet ended the night. The band features brothers Keith and Kenneth Brown, but room was made on the stage for both Rocky Wynder and Lance Owens and their smoothly complimentary sounds to open the set. Donald Brown even sat in on bass for one song. A more modern jazz ensemble, they chose to include several Keith Jarret compositions which, for some reason, prompted Donald Brown to make light-hearted cat-calls from off-stage directed at his sons.

Keith Brown with Lance Owens and Rocky Wynder

The night was a great one with jazz luminaries joined by local celebrities, downtown residents and jazz fans from around the region. The music, as always in Knoxville, stole the spotlight, though the film was revelatory as it revealed the depth of jazz history in the city. Of course, Knoxville itself also took a starring role. The old footage and photographs of a city that looked very different, though similar to the one we love today was worth the price of admission in and of itself.

Lance Owens/Rocky Wynder, Square Room, Knoxville, September 2011

Rocky Wynder, Square Room, Knoxville

If any of this sounds good to you, get involved. The Knoxville Jazz Orchestra kicks off their season next week with a tribute to Louis Armstrong. I’ll leave you with the sounds of Rocky Winder.

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