A Tribute to Louis Armstrong, featuring trumpeter Brandon Lee (from left), pianist Thomas Linger, bassist Steve Haines and clarinetist Anthony Taylor will perform Saturday in the new jazz series at O. Henry Hotel in Greensboro.
Greensboro, quietly, gradually and organically, has lately become a hotbed for jazz.
The players have always been here — with top-flight music departments at UNC-Greensboro, Greensboro College, N.C. A&T and Guilford College, as well as the nearby UNC-School of the Arts — but who knew if there were enough listeners to create a critical mass that would support live jazz? Yes, a handful of promoters and venue operators knew (and are to be commended for their foresight), but there was one jazz aficionado who knew, but who didn’t quite fit the mold.
Most hotels and restaurants have little more than a passing acquaintance with live music, but Dennis Quaintance, a locally well-known hotelier and restaurateur, gets it. About five years ago, he followed a hunch and began weekly offerings at Lucky 32, with Laurelyn Dossett and friends, and Print Works Bistro, with AM Rodeo (Evan Olson and Jessica Mashburn), both of which are still going strong.
But what to do with his pride and joy, the social lobby of the O. Henry Hotel, designed after the famed Algonquin Hotel in New York, long a jazz mecca? Last September, he and curator Victoria Clegg began “Thursday Cocktails and Jazz at the O. Henry.” The ongoing series features saxophonist Neill Clegg Jr., pianist Dave Fox, both music professors at Greensboro College; and a rotating roster of cream-of-the-crop featured vocalists. To say that it has been a wild success is putting it mildly.
But still, ecstatic as he was over the jazz series, Quaintance felt there was something missing. Something that could embellish the overall jazz scene in the community.
“We envisioned Cocktails and Jazz as an American Songbook-based thing,” he said. “The variety is based on the vocalists themselves. But if jazz is considered a 360-degree circle, American Songbook is probably about 90 degrees of the spectrum. We wanted to do more but did not want to tamper with the format that fits the room. Thursdays have been so wonderful, we decided to start a series that would employ the other 270 degrees of the circle in different ways.”
The result is Select Saturdays (Vol. 1), which began Sept. 19 and will have its second installment this Saturday with the group A Tribute to Louis Armstrong. The quartet is in essence an extension of the Steve Haines Trio and features trumpeter Brandon Lee, clarinetist Anthony Taylor, pianist Thomas Linger and bassist Steve Haines.
Lee is probably Greensboro’s best-kept secret. He studied under Wynton Marsalis, eventually becoming his colleague, and was the youngest professor ever to teach at Julliard. For the past three years, he has been a professor of trumpet at UNCG.
“His mastery of both his instrument and the history of music is incredible,” says Haines, who is the director of the Miles Davis Jazz Program at UNCG. “I am continually amazed at the way he makes his instrument sound.”
The quartet will obviously run through much of the Satchmo catalog but will pay special attention to what Haines calls his golden period 1926 to 1928.
“That late ’20s era with Louis Armstrong and the Hot 5 is what really set the bar and codified what we call swing,” he said. “Those are considered jazz masterpieces. We all owe how we play to him, and I am personally very honored to play his music.”
Curator Victoria Clegg noted that the bar was set high for the Thursday series, and those standards will be maintained if not raised a bit for the Saturday series.
“I know that sounds odd, since my husband is considered the finest sax player around, and Dave Fox is a legend,” she says with a smile, “but what I mean is that by expanding the types of jazz we’re featuring, that in itself raises the bar. And when you look at the lineup we’ve booked, we’re talking about international talent here. And then factor in the room itself, upscale but far from pretentious, and this is like a dream come true.”