One artist whom Tampa Bay jazz fans frequently hear on WUSF 98.7-FM’s late night jazz programming is Nate Najar, a guy who probably never once even thought about whether or not he’d be on the radio someday.
“From the minute I could drive, I was going places with my guitar, and I would go anywhere that some band was playing, and I’d ask if I could sit in,” Najar, 37, told CL. He was always able to find a gig. One of those clubs was the since-demolished C Note on Central Avenue in St. Petersburg, where Najar would sneak in and listen to Suzette Jennings (Najar said that there’s a Regions bank there now). A Detroit piano player, Jerry Libby, eventually got hired there, and he hired Najar to play five nights a week for three years.
“I learned so much from just watching his left hand,” Najar said. Standards and real tunes were absorbed, and soon Najar found himself playing guitar for late, legendary St. Petersburg trombonist Buster Cooper.
“Buster was really nice, he would let anybody sit in, so everybody and their brother cut their teeth sitting in with Buster,” he added. For three years, though, Najar spent every Friday and Saturday playing with Cooper in the courtyard of long-demolished downtown St. Petersburg restaurant The Garden; Najar learned a lot of tunes, and he learned how to run a bandstand. From then on, Najar always found a gig, put together groups and played no matter where it was. He chased opportunities and never waited for the phone to ring; he never sat around and didn’t practice.
“I never thought about it in terms of ‘Oh, I have to work,’” Najar said. “It was just, ‘I have to play the guitar… and I will play it anywhere.’”
For many of Tampa Bay’s brightest jazz talents, that impulse to just play is a constant. James Suggs — who saw his debut LP, You’re Gonna Hear From Me, go national — got the bug after family snuck him backstage at a Wynton Marsalis concert. The then 29-year-old trumpet icon gave a 10-year-old Suggs a short, private lesson.
“That transformed me. After that concert, I was set on becoming a jazz trumpet player,” Suggs told CL in a March interview.
For others, like pianist John O’Leary, the impulses led to writing an album about neuroscience. O’Leary’s band, La Lucha, put out an equally quirky, Moog Sub Phatty-driven album, Pa’Lante, after that. Hector Mayoral expresses it in his stripped-back Latin jazz and folk. Omari Dillard does it with his electric violin. BK Jackson, a breakout smooth jazz saxophonist, parlayed his own desire to play into a long stay in Prince’s band and his current role in Trombone Shorty’s ensemble. A young Florida State grad and saxophonist named Marlon Boone is doing his best to break into a precarious smooth jazz market without any support from radio.
The list of individuals who play jazz in Tampa Bay is unsurprisingly long. A Creative Loafing Tampa survey of just 20 local jazz musicians, promoters and supporters yielded the names of nearly 300 individuals (which we’ll be compiling online) who we should’ve considered talking to for this issue.
Some of those artists even earn four Grammy nominations for a single album. Just ask Chuck Owen — a University of South Florida professor of jazz studies and director of the school’s Center for Jazz Composition — whose 2017 album with his band, Jazz Surge, was nominated four times (Best Large Jazz Ensemble Recording, Best Instrumental Composition, Best Arrangement, Instrumental or A Cappella and Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album).
The seven-track suite, titled Whispers on the Wind, was propelled by a 19-piece big band, full orchestra, dulcimer and even accordion, which all appeared alongside horns (like that of Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker) and harmonica by Grégoire Maret. Produced by longtime Tampeño Tom Morris, the result was a non-traditional, expansive and sublime recording inspired by the American heartland and accented by composer Sara Caswell, whose violin shone on a nearly 12-minute long Whispers highlight “Can’t Remember Why.”
And while artists like Owen push the sound of jazz to the brink (the Florida Bjorkestra could even be put in that genre-pushing category), others are reaching back into the past.
“For our group, we just wanted to be as authentic to the Brazilian sound as we can be,” David Manson, trombone player for O Som Do Jazz, told CL. His group — which features Rio De Janeiro expat Andrea Moraes on vocals — just released its new album, Go! “We’re trying to capture that moment when the Brazilian musicians kind of began improvising with some jazz influence.”
Dick Rumore’s 11-piece Jazz Cellar Orchestra is also still around to remind longtime Bay area jazz of a time when the Ybor City historic district could sustain a literal underground jazz venue. The band can mostly be seen as part of Jim Burge’s offerings at Carrollwood Cultural Center since the Cellar is now one of the many heavily surveilled rooms that make up the Church of Scientology’s Ybor Square property (which includes CL’s office; yes, Xenu is our landlord).
And speaking of old Cigar City jazz joints, the Beatdown Band, which used to play at the since-shuttered Ybor City Jazz House, now does its thing in Brandon at the re-branded Jazz House Supper Club.
Yet another artist channeling a different era of jazz is singer-songwriter Gloria West, who was in a country outfit before she pivoted to jazz in 2014. Today, her group Gloria West and the Gents sometimes gives pop songs an old jazz feel but mostly deals in swing and straight-up old jazz from the ‘20s, ‘30s and ‘40s.
“If I do stuff from the ‘50s and ‘60s, I’ll still do it with an older feel,” West told CL when asked about her band’s sound. Louis Armstrong, Taylor Swift, Bruno Mars and even stuff from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory all get worked into sets that West works through at venues like Zydeco Brew Werks in Ybor City.
Like Tampa Bay jazz scene matriarch Kitty Daniels, West just loves the feel of the music she plays and the smiles it creates in the audience. At one point in her journey, people around West tried to recruit her for corporate bands. She refused.
“I was like, ‘No, I want to do jazz.’ I just knew it inside of me, and it just it felt like home,” she said. “The more I learned, the more I got comfortable with it. It’s just such a blissful feeling.”
And if you need a break from the warm and fuzzy feelings, just go and find a gig where Al Di Meola percussionist Gumbi Ortiz is in the lineup. The 64-year-old virtuoso doesn’t consider himself a jazz musician, but he was one of the first to play the Clearwater Jazz Holiday four decades ago. The fast-talking, no-bullshit poor kid from the Bronx plays like a man on fire and often finds himself surrounded by the best jazz musicians in the area. Just last week, he played an album release party for vocalist Bryan J Hughes, who managed to get an absolutely insane ensemble — including the aforementioned Suggs and Najar, Ron and Dave Reinhardt, Mike Gibilisco, Mike Scaglione, Whitney James and Patrick Bettison — onto the Hideaway Café stage.
“I don’t see myself as a genre player. I’m not a jazz player, or a conga player, or a Latin player, or funk player. I just see myself as a drummer,” Ortiz told CL. He acknowledged that he’s shared stages with some of the greats (including Nat Adderley, among many others) and that he was there with vocalist Fred Johnson during some of the best days of the Tampa Bay jazz scene, but he insists that he shouldn’t be mentioned when we talk about people preserving the culture of jazz.
“I’m not that guy. I want to have a good time, and I want the audience to have a good time,” Ortiz added. Like many of the arists in this issue, he just wants to be in close proximity to the thing he loves the most. “I want to play my instrument, and I am fortunate to play it well on a good night.”
And in looking at the present state of Tampa Bay’s jazz scene, perhaps it's Ortiz’s aversion to taking the idea of jazz so seriously we should focus on.
Since its inception, jazz has been a malleable art from. It was born in America, but it’s gone global since inception. In some parts of the world, the word “jazz” is more sacred than it is Stateside. Bands like Snarky Puppy are bringing a new and expansive (if not noodling) approach to the genre while others like Kamasi Washington are reminding us (the way J Dilla did, or how Flying Lotus does) that the best jazz — and music in general — is made by brave individuals who possess an unworldly devotion to their instruments and the wherewithal to follow their unruly muse wherever it leads them. As jazz continues to evolve, it will be driven, undoubtedly, by its most influential players but also by conceptualists who’ll redraw the lines over and again.
How much of a role Tampa Bay plays in all of that remains to be seen, but the scene has always been alive, and a new bumper crop of exceptional young talent stands to be at the forefront of that journey.