Since I have been in university, most talk of live music has revolved around “what club has a special on tonight?” or “which DJ is going to be in town this weekend?” I have nothing against electronic music but sitting in a packed bar near the Halifax Harbor listening to jazz and conversing in a booth with my friends, instead of shouting to clear the volume of dance music, has been one of the most enjoyable nights of my time at Dalhousie. I had always wanted to see some live jazz or blues here, but without the extra push of this assignment I couldn’t seem to get out to listen to any. I went to see the Charles Mingus Tribute play on Thursday, Oct. 9th at Stayner’s Wharf Pub and Restaurant with some friends in the history of jazz course with me, and with some from out of the class. The performers were Dave Staples (piano), Chris Mitchell (saxophone), Martin Davidson (saxophone), Danny Martin (trombone), Tom Roach (drums), and Tom Easley (bass). As I was listening to the jazz I was trying my hardest to take in my surroundings and analyze how the environment catered to the music, see who was in attendance, and most of all enjoy the show.
When listening and watching live performances, the venue is almost as important as the music itself. The venue that the Charles Mingus Tribute played at the night I saw them was a restaurant and bar called Stayner’s Wharf. I had been there before, but in the middle of the day with no live music. The change I saw in atmosphere from that first time I experienced the restaurant to the second was tremendous. A tucked away stage with six musicians squished onto it all playing their hearts out transformed the boring restaurant into something so much more alive. The venue was a little odd because it wasn’t positioned around the players, so many people couldn’t see the stage from their tables or stools. However, even if you couldn’t see the musicians you could hear the sound so clearly throughout the entire place. It was very busy. People were standing with drinks, leaning on tables or walls, or sitting in booths with too many people on each bench.
The staff was working like crazy trying to cater to the needs of each customer and was doing an excellent job. Luckily, even though we arrived slightly late, we were able to get a booth seat with a great view of the stage. This affected the experience immensely. Being able to see clearly the onstage chemistry and improvisation was very cool. There were certain times, in between solos when two musicians would exchange head nods and other gestures to indicate when someone should start playing and other technical things that I’m sure I don’t know about. Although the music wasn’t always collective improvisation, the ability of the individual players to adapt to what the others were doing was apparent and so was the skill that goes along with that ability. Overall I think the venue was perfect for the type of jazz they were playing, and the mood that each musician seemed to be in. The musicians seemed happier, too, because they could step off and enjoy a beer in between sets.
Since it was after 9:00 PM and there was live music, the event was labeled a “no minors event”. This put me as definitely the youngest person in attendance, as I was yet to turn 19 at the time. My age posed as a slight problem when trying to get in, but after explaining that we were here strictly for the jazz, the manager made an exception and allowed us entrance to the event. I think the fact that I was one of the only people there not indulging in alcohol changed the way I listened to the music, especially as the show continued. Everyone I was sitting with never had an empty glass in front of them and even the musicians were drinking casually, which reminded me of speakeasies and had me imagining myself in Chicago in the 1920’s. As the audience got drunker the volume of their voices increased, and so did the applause and cheers at the end of each solo or song.
However as the audience got louder and more rambunctious the musicians seemed to match the mood and volume perfectly. It was a real happy party atmosphere. In between songs, the band members would shout out to friends of theirs in the crowd or sometimes even to people they didn’t know who were there celebrating a special occasion. The special thing about the audience was how much everyone wanted to be there and to be immersed in the music. People would close their eyes and move their heads to the music and I was constantly tapping my toe on the floor or my finger on the table along with the rhythm of the drums and bass. Overall, it was a warm audience of people from many different age groups who were there because they wanted to be there and it was clear that everyone loved the jazz.
The band itself was an absolute pleasure to listen to and watch perform. It consisted of two lead saxophonists, a lead trombonist, a piano player, bass player, and a drummer. The two saxophone players were very different in their stage presence. Chris Mitchell, the older of the two, had a wild and eccentric way of playing the saxophone. Some of his solo’s reminded me almost of those by Charlie Parker. They were very fast and almost abrupt or sharp in the way they jumped out at you. As one friend of mine put it, “his stage presence was similar to that of Bobby Keys” who is most famous for playing saxophone for the Rolling Stones. On the opposing side, the second saxophone player was unbelievably young and seemed to have not quite come into his own stage persona yet. Where Chris Mitchell would move with the music, Martin Davidson seemed slightly more rigid. This didn’t detract from the sound or quality of his playing though. It was almost like watching a more experienced teacher and his student prodigy playing together in front of us that night. The band was playing jazz compositions mostly by Charles Mingus such as “Jump Monk” and “Pussy Cat Dues. So after the show I went home and listened to the titles as performed by Mingus to compare the two.
I decided that I liked the live version that I saw more than the recorded version of Mingus. I think this is because of my ability to actually see the jazz and feel it around me when I was at Stayner’s Wharf. It’s hard for me to come up with any faults in the performance because of how much fun I had and how little experience I have with live jazz in general. One thing I would have liked more would have been to hear more piano over all. I have played piano since I was in grade one and advanced through my exams until grade 10 classical piano, after which I took two years of jazz piano lessons. So it is easy to say that piano is one of my favorite instruments, but I realize it isn’t usually a lead instrument for a jazz band like this. With that one personal preference aside, I had no bad things to say about the band. I thought they were charismatic on stage, sounded great and improvised together perfectly.
The type of jazz played was more an art music than a popular music. It’s hard to label what jazz was being played, because Charles Mingus himself didn’t like to label any of his songs into one genre, and the band was playing his songs. But I think there was a lot of collective improvisation on stage and the styles ranged from New Orleans styled jazz to Be Bop at points. It was almost like a “mixed bag”. I think that is why I enjoyed the performance so much, because there were surprises and no song or solo sounded the same. I didn’t have the opportunity to fall bored like some people could if the musician was someone like Bill Evans, who plays slower and quieter jazz. The Jazz was definitely center of attention in the bar and was the main attraction for the night unlike other restaurants that have musicians as a sort of background music. One song, the first song we heard when we came in, had a “four on the floor” rhythm to it. I remember walking in and thinking “Hey! I know what that is!”
Overall, the night was a success and everyone I was with thoroughly enjoyed it. After the jazz, some of my friends went to a nightclub and said that the clashing of the two experiences made them realize how much different the music of today is from the music of the past. Whether it’s a good difference or not is in the eye of the beholder. The venue, though it was small and packed, was a great place for the musicians to play. The audience was all happy, which might have had something to do with the alcohol, but it made the entire atmosphere happy as well. The Charles Mingus Tribute did an excellent job of transferring the music of Mingus to the audience that night; the soloists were unbelievable; and the collective improvisation on stage was very cool to watch. I have already decided with a group of friends that we will be going to another live jazz event in November, and I am looking forward to seeing if I can apply some more jazz knowledge learned from class at this event as well.