Knoxville is a jazz-rich city. It shouldn’t logically have a jazz scene at all. As an Appalachian city our heritage runs in other directions from old time to bluegrass, from a bit of blues to country, our musical heritage is similar to other locals in our region, if a bit more impressive than most. But jazz? While there was a bit here earlier in our history, it’s a style far more associated with New Orleans and St. Louis.
I grew up with jazz. In Mobile, Alabama there was a bit of jazz all about at Sunday brunch, in Mardi Gras parades. But it was the proximity to New Orleans that afforded most of my jazz experience. Regular trips to Preservation Hall in the French Quarter furnished me with a love of jazz and many precious memories of good times with my family. Preservation Hall was not air conditioned, crowded and generally required that most of the audience stand after a long wait in line. It was fabulous.
So, why is Knoxville so jazz rich? Because of the UT jazz program which has helped retain world-class musicians in a city they might not otherwise have chosen. Founded in 1976 by Jerry Coker, the program features amazing musicians, such as Donald Brown and Greg Tardy, as instructors and they produce a steady stream of talented, professionally trained jazz musicians, many of whom chose to live and practice their art in Knoxville after they graduate.
This wealth of talent in our small city made the advent of the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra, founded and directed by Vance Thompson a possibility. The non-profit organization, conceived in 1999 adds greatly to the musical culture of our city. The orchestra itself performs an annual series of concerts at the Bijou and spin-off ensembles perform an annual lunch series at the Square Room. Performances in Knox County Schools and a junior orchestra enrich the lives and expand the possibilities of are young people.
Drawing from both the orchestra and the UT program, the Marble City Five is a jazz quintet headed by Vance Thompson on trumpet, Greg Tardy on Saxophone, Keith Brown on keyboards, Nolan Nevels on drums and Taylor Coker on bass. They are most prominently featured at their summer series of weekly Tuesday night shows on Market Square, Jazz on the Square. Two hours of free jazz on a summer night is about as good as it gets.
Currently, the Five have added Six to form a larger ensemble called Five Plus Six. A few weeks ago they were set to play one of the Tuesday night shows as an eleven piece ensemble when weather forced them inside the Bijou, which turned out to be a very cool show and is the source of the photographs you see here. They played all the songs they know as a group, which are the songs they recorded in Nashville over the next two days.
The are currently in a fund-raising project to pay for the recording, mixing, production and promotion of “Such Sweet Thunder,” which will feature music of Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk and Dolly Parton. They have four days left and have reached 98% of their goal. Any funds raised in excess of the goal will go to funding for the junior orchestra. It’s a very good cause and a great way to give back to a group of musicians who enrich our lives. Follow the link above and advance order a CD for $20 or do more if you are able. It helps retain a great asset for our community.
Here’s a funny video featuring Vance Thompson talking about the project.