A Blue Note Night

A Centennial Hall performance celebrates Blue Note Records' 70th anniversary

Blue Note Records, along with other pivotal labels such as Impulse and Verve, helped jazz come alive for a wide audience in the 1950s and '60s. Established in 1939, Blue Note has become known as the most influential label in jazz.

In honor of Blue Note's 70th anniversary, the label assembled an all-star band, dubbed the Blue Note 7, to play a celebratory three-month concert tour and record an album of classic tunes from the label's vintage hard-bop years.

The CD, Mosaic: A Celebration of Blue Note Records, was released just a couple of weeks ago, and it includes new versions of classic material originally recorded by Bud Powell, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock, Lee Morgan and Wayne Shorter.

The tour will visit Tucson for a date at the University of Arizona's Centennial Hall on Friday, Jan. 30.

The group features some of jazz's finest talents: music director and pianist Bill Charlap, tenor saxophonist Ravi Coltrane, trumpeter Nicholas Payton, guitarist Peter Bernstein, alto sax player Steve Wilson and the rhythm section of drummer Lewis Nash and bassist Peter Washington.

Nash is no stranger to Arizona. He was born in 1958 in Phoenix, where his parents and most of his family still live.

Apparently, he was drumming at an age so young he can't remember it, he said during a recent phone interview. He must rely on the anecdotes of his parents and older siblings for the earliest accounts of his musical abilities.

"When I was a toddler, they used to see me go out into the yard and break off a limb or a branch from a tree, and break that in half to make myself two drumsticks; and then I would surround myself with cardboard boxes and cans and play the drums."

Nash wasn't exposed to much jazz when he was young--at home, he heard R&B, gospel and blues, mostly--although he played drums in bands in elementary and high school. Whenever he wasn't busy with sports, that is.

"At East Phoenix High School, we had what was called a stage band. I didn't really have much knowledge of jazz at that moment. I did know, however, what the jazz cymbal beat sounded like, so I went in for the audition and played that--you know, ting, ting a ting-ting. And they took me."

Nash went to Arizona State University on a scholarship to study broadcast journalism, but he continued to play whenever he could. "I was not a music major, but a teacher in the music department encouraged me to pursue it."

After graduation, Nash moved to New York City, where he was promptly hired by the great vocalist Betty Carter--he remained a member of her band for four years, and he not only accumulated a vast amount of musical experience, but the gig afforded him his first opportunities to visit Europe, Japan and the Caribbean, as well as to play Carnegie Hall.

Nash has since played with a wide variety of jazz giants: Dizzy Gillespie , Sonny Stitt , Oscar Peterson , Sonny Rollins , Ray Brown , Horace Silver, Ron Carter , McCoy Tyner , Wynton Marsalis , Clark Terry , Joe Williams , Nancy Wilson and Kenny Burrell , among others.

He's also released four albums under his own name and leads a band that has been working together steadily since 1998. He said he's putting the finishing touches on a fifth CD he hopes to see released later this year.

One of Nash's biggest influences has been the legendary pianist Tommy Flanagan, with whom he played for 10 years.

"The experience I had with (Flanagan)--as with everyone I've played with--has been invaluable. I call upon it every time I get up and play," Nash said.

Certainly, he's calling on it each night when he plays with the Blue Note 7 on its current tour. He said he needs that experience considering the caliber of the other players in the group. "The level of musicianship and inspiration is so high each night, we derive strength and power from each other."

Perhaps more important, the Blue Note 7 is a real band, Nash said, that will more than likely tour and record together again.

"I know it sounds like a cliché, but with the guys in this group it's like family. I've been involved in many all-star-band situations, and in some of them the members can't wait to get away from each other once they get off the bandstand. That's not the case with this group. It's all built on a sense of mutual respect and admiration."

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