A Conversation With Bruce Eaton Regarding Art Of Jazz

When the closing of the Albright-Knox Art Gallery for its major expansion project was announced, many loyal fans of the gallery’s Art of Jazz series met with sadness the news that the series would go on hiatus for the projected 2 1/2 year construction period.  Having gained an appreciation for the presentation of such artists as Carla Bley, Billy Childs, and Joe Lovano, the desire to see and hear more such performances had grown.

Plans sometimes do not go – well, as planned.  And, in this case, a change of plans is met as welcomed news.  It was recently announced that the series – rechristened The Art of Jazz at the Philharmonic – would move to the Mary Seaton Room at Kleinhans Music Hall beginning on February 2, 2020.  JazzBuffalo sat down with series producer Bruce Eaton to get a behind-the-scenes look at this welcomed news. 

JazzBuffalo:  When the 2018-19 Art of Jazz Series concluded, did you have any inkling that the series would continue?

Eaton: No. As I told the audience at our final concert this past April, I believed that the Albright-Knox expansion is going to be a huge win for all of Western New York and that the construction period would fly by.  Some of our loyal patrons urged me to find another home but my feeling at the time was that the Albright-Knox auditorium was such an essential component of the success of the series that the best course would be to not force the issue. 

JazzBuffalo: The series, by many measures, was completely successful the past two seasons.  Do you agree?

Eaton: Absolutely.  We had complete advance sell-outs for every concert.  When the projected closing of the Gallery was pushed back to November, the Albright-Knox encouraged me to book one final concert – the Bill Charlap Trio – and that also sold out well in advance. 

JazzBuffalo: So what changed your mind on continuing with the series at a different venue?

Eaton:  Dan Hart [Executive Director of the Buffalo Philharmonic] reached out to Joe-Lin Hill [Deputy Director of the Albright-Knox] about presenting the series at Kleinhans during the construction hiatus.  Dan is a jazz fan – a former jazz bassist in fact – and has been to Art of Jazz concerts.  So his enthusiasm for the program went well beyond whatever success we’ve had at the box office.  After we toured the Mary Seaton Room, I came away believing that we could make the venue change and still retain the intimacy and atmosphere that helped make Art of Jazz so successful.  The room was designed for chamber music concerts and I think that matches well with jazz. 

JazzBuffalo: Why is the series name being rechristened the Art of Jazz at the Philharmonic? 

Eaton: Every jazz fan knows about the Jazz at the Philharmonic tours in the 1940s and 1950s produced by the legendary Norman Granz [also the founder of Verve Records].  They were instrumental in changing the perception that jazz could only be presented in clubs and breaking down racial barriers. He moved jazz from smoky late-night venues to the most prestigious concert halls in the world.  What Buffalo area jazz fans may not know is that the tour made at least four stops at Kleinhans – and possibly more.  The Buffalo dates included Charlie Parker, Lester Young, Bud Powell, Ella Fitzgerald, Coleman Hawkins, Oscar Peterson and many more – pretty much every major jazz star from that era.  So the title connects what the Art of Jazz series has been doing at the Albright-Knox – presenting many of the biggest names in jazz today – with the historic legacy of jazz at Kleinhans. 

JazzBuffalo: The Art of Jazz series has presented a wide range of jazz artists – from the eclectic to the mainstream.  Also, spanning the spectrum of emerging stars to legendary artists.  Was it important to change the approach in terms of which jazz artists to present for this series?

Eaton: I was certainly aware that working with Kleinhans would enable us to reach a whole new audience that may not be familiar with the series. So I wanted to present artists that would be appreciated by anyone who attends who is a music lover –  whether they’re jazz aficionados or not.  And I definitely think we accomplished that goal.

JazzBuffalo: Tell us a little about the series line-up.

Eaton: The series opens on Sunday, February 2 the Christian Sands Highwire Trio.  There are so many great young pianists today and Sands is right at the top.  This will be a special tribute to the late piano genius Erroll Garner.  Sands is the official ambassador of the Erroll Garner Estate and does a handful of concerts each year that focus on Garner’s repertoire.  Music fans will, of course, know Garner as the composter of the classic “Misty” and for his “Concert By The Sea” album, the first million-selling jazz album.  Garner was a singular artist – not readily copied or imitated – but Sands really does grasp the essence of Garner and then is able to put his own style on it.  I’ve heard live tapes of Sands’s Garner concerts and they’re amazing. You can hear the crowd erupting in joy throughout – just as you’d hear on Garner’s live recordings.

JazzBuffalo: After such a grand lead-off show, how do you follow that?

Eaton: On March 15 we’ll feature pianist Ethan Iverson and trumpeter Tom Harrell delving into the classic jazz songbook, material that might have even been performed on the Jazz At The Philharmonic tours.  Jazz fans know Iverson as the co-founder of the Bad Plus – who incidentally played their first major concert outside of New York City as part of the Art of Jazz Series.  A big reason for his departure from the Bad Plus was his increasing focus on playing with living jazz masters like Harrell.  They released a live album at the Village Vanguard [Common Practice / ECM] earlier this year that’s at the top of my list for best jazz album of 2019.  Iverson is also one of the best writers about jazz today – he’s now the jazz writer for the New Yorker and his blog has won a number of journalism awards.  He’ll be part of a pre-concert discussion on the legacy of impresario Norman Granz.

We’ll wrap up on April 26 with Grammy-winning vocalist Catherine Russell.  Catherine is that rarest of entities – a genuine jazz and blues singer who can sing virtually anything with soul and humor.  Her father Luis Russell was Louis Armstrong’s longtime pianist and musical director and Catherine brings a real authenticity to her repertoire that features vital off-the-beaten-path songs from the pre-War era of Harlem. She’s also an in-demand vocalist when she’s not leading her own group – recently touring with Steely Dan as well as David Bowie and a host of others.  It promises to be a thoroughly entertaining concert. Catherine is a wonderful performer.  

JazzBuffalo.  It sounds like a very exciting line-up. Where can people learn more about the concerts and buy tickets?

Eaton:  Visit the Kleinhans website (https://kleinhansbuffalo.org/art-of-jazz-at-the-philharmonic/) for information and tickets and also, of course, JazzBuffalo (https://jazzbuffalo.org/event/art-of-jazz-at-the-philharmonic-series-3-concerts-series/2020-02-02/) People can stay tuned to the JazzBuffalo website (https://jazzbuffalo.org/) and newsletter for additional stories as we get closer to the performances.

(Disclaimer note: JazzBuffalo serves as a media sponsor and Tony Zambito as Associate Producer for the Art of Jazz Series.  Our hope is to help build awareness of this welcomed news in the article.)

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