Alive and Well

Free midweek concerts give Tucson's jazz scene a boost

It's just after 7 p.m. on a Tuesday night and it's hard not to be taken by the flow of foot traffic coming into the El Con Club from the parking lot. Take it one step further and it's even harder not to be struck by the fact that the parking lot is inside the city's Randolph Golf Complex and that it's jazz night.

So, let's recap: Jazz, golf and the middle of the week—a potentially perfect storm for another well-intentioned but failed music venture. And yet Tom Kusian and Jim Stanley, longtime veterans on the Tucson music scene and the heart and soul behind the El Con Club, could not be happier with the way their Tuesday night jazz scene is taking shape.

"We're very encouraged by the crowds," says Kusian, who estimates there have been in excess of 200 patrons for two of the last three weeks. "There are so many great jazz musicians in town. We thought, let's give them a place to come out and play."

While good musicianship is the bedrock upon which Kusian and Stanley are building their midweek experience, they understand there are other factors necessary for success.

Mostly, they appear to have learned from their first experience with the venue, when they were promoting a weekly show rooted in blues, rock and New Orleans style funk in 2011. Between the volume, harsh lighting and lack of aesthetics within the room, not even Grammy nominee AmoChip Dabney and his A-list cast of musical characters (including Kusian and Stanley on guitar and bass, respectively) could sustain this idea for more than a few months.

Softer lighting and a room designed to promote more intimacy and conversation have been a big help. Throw in a $10 buffet, full bar, no cover and a host of great players and you have all the makings for a good scene.

Kusian, however, is a businessman and a realist. Owner of the recently closed 17th Street Market (and 17th Street Music), he understands there are many variables in play. Kusian says he and Stanley have discussed the idea of instituting a $5 admission to help cover costs, but for now have decided against it.

"We can get more creative with revenue-producing ideas," he said. "And we need to find more ways to accommodate folks who don't drink." Toward that end he mentioned several ideas, including an expansive dessert bar, an ice cream bar and perhaps a wine tasting experience.

Kusian is also quick to mention the Yamaha grand piano, on loan to the room by Hachenberg and Sons Pianos. People love playing the piano, which is featured with almost all of the groups and musicians who play there, including Jeff Haskell, Sly Slipetsky and Arthur Statman, to name a few.

Fortunately, jazz night is not the only revenue stream. Kusian also runs the concession for the golf course during the day, which is helping to subsidize the jazz. Another cog in the machine is their recording studio, another subsidiary of the 17th Street Market, which now functions on its own.

Stanley, who played bass with String Figures (with Greg Morton and Mark Robertson-Tessi), has his own jazz roots. In the mid-1970s he ran sound for many big-name jazz shows across the street at the Doubletree hotel. "Freddie Hubbard, Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and Herbie Hancock all played shows there," Stanley said, "and that's how I met Tom."

The jazz series has given him an opportunity to record many of the Tuesday night players. "Every group that goes out should have something that represents them," Kusian said, "to help create their own revenue streams." He also noted Stanley records all of the shows with the expectation they will release a Tuesday night compilation.

Although it has never enjoyed the local prominence given other genres such as blues, bluegrass and folk, all of which have their own festivals, jazz in Tucson does have a rich, if more anonymous heritage, from Jazz Sundaes at Reid Park to the concerts in St. Philip's Plaza to the Sunday Night Jazz Jams, which still live on at the Old Pueblo Grille. There seems to be a demand for jazz in Tucson, and aficionados are clearly taking advantage of this midweek opportunity.

This week, the series features a return engagement for Hot Club of Tucson. A group that bills itself as specializing in gypsy jazz, Hot Club features Matt Mitchell on guitar, Nick Coventry on violin and Evan Dain on bass. While all of them are well-schooled in various genres—Mitchell fronts a guitar-oriented jazz trio, Coventry plays bluegrass with Greg Morton and Dain is an in-demand multi-instrumentalist—playing banjo, bass and trombone—their fusion around the music of Django Reinhardt is infectious.

When asked, "Why jazz and why now?" Kusian's response was clear and concise. "These (great) musicians are a bit underserved and need a place to play. It's a no-brainer."

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