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Is Tucson a great jazz city? The pieces are in place

Is Tucson a great jazz city? The pieces are in place

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Brass section plays along to “Vine Street Rumble” during a jazz ensemble summer class at Utterback Middle School taught by the Tucson Jazz Institute.

Far from the parades of New Orleans and clubs of New York City, live jazz has taken root in Tucson and the Southwest.

Tucson has a vibrant jazz program at the Fred Fox School of Music at the University of Arizona. Young jazz musicians from the Tucson Jazz Institute have been putting Tucson on the national map for years, and the Tucson Jazz Society and Jazz Festival are bringing in big-name artists, creating what Tucson Jazz Festival executive director Yvonne Ervin calls a vibrant jazz scene.

But “the Tucson Jazz Institute is what makes Tucson unique,” she said.

TJI’s Ellington Big Band for the past eight years has won top awards at the annual Essentially Ellington Festival & Competition hosted by Jazz at Lincoln Center in New York City; the group took first place in 2013 and 2014.

TJI co-founder Brice Winston attributes much of his students’ success to the number of opportunities they have to perform locally.

The Tucson Jazz Festival is moving from January to March in 2021. At least eight national-level acts are planned for the two-day outdoor event.

“Jam sessions are vital,” Winston said. “They provide another opportunity for the kids to develop their talent.”

Winston said that Tucson could very well become an essential stop for traveling jazz artists.

“I’d like to see Tucson as a pocket in the Southwest to connect traveling artists from the East to the West,” Winston said.

The only thing missing, says local jazz icon Pete Swan, is a club dedicated to showcasing live jazz.

“I really believe there is something special about Tucson,” he said. “There is a lot of diversity in the Tucson jazz scene and there’s a lot of people who are working to create things.”

Swan said that in his work with the Jazz Institute he has seen an amazing amount of talent from artists in Southern Arizona, which is one of the reasons why he thinks Tucson is special.

“It’s not about where you’re from or what color your skin is,” Swan said. “Creativity is everyone’s birthright.”

One of the many people working to make Tucson the next great city for jazz is Ervin, who launched the Jazz Festival in 2015, drawing big names including Kermit Ruffins, Jimmy Heath, Hypnotic Brass, Kamasi Washington and others. Bobby McFerrin and Trombone Shorty are among the headliners for the 10-day 2019 festival, held at venues around town.

The festival, which this year is teaming up with the Tucson Desert Song Festival and Tucson Symphony Orchestra, draws tens of thousands of attendees each year.

Saxophonist Robbie Lee, a Tucson native now based in New York, performs with the Pete Swan Quartet at Swingin’ at Sullivan’s.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue add muscular funk to traditional jazz licks with a dash of rock ’n’ roll. They will perform Friday, Jan. 18, at Centennial Hall.

Pink Martini founder and pianist Thomas Lauderdale, left-center, with vocalists China Forbes and Storm Large, will perform at the Music Hall on Saturday and Sunday, Jan. 19 and 20.

The Tucson Jazz Institute is a community organization that gives youths an opportunity to play. Here, Zayden Morgan, 12, draws out a long note on his trombone.

Maxwell Smith, 14, steals a sip of his slush drink while Mikayla Grijalva, 12, plays during a class taught by the Tucson Jazz Institute at Utterback Middle School.

Bassist Scott Black at work with visiting pianist Robbie Lee of the Pete Swan Quartet at Swingin’ at Sullivan’s on Sunday, July 8, 2018 in Tucson, AZ.

“The Tucson Jazz Institute is what makes Tucson unique,” says Tucson Jazz Festival executive director Yvonne Ervin. Here, Spencer Allen, 12, keeps rhythm during a class at Utterback Middle School taught by the Jazz Institute.

Chandler Donald is a University of Arizona journalism student apprenticing at the Star.

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