Atlanta jazz for beginners
A Saturday night tour, part one
It's seven o'clock on a Saturday night. Don the fedora. Crank the Ford. Time to discover jazz in the city.
First stop: Sambuca Jazz Café, a Buckhead night spot that features an upscale dining environment (entrees: $17-$32) and various types of jazz seven nights a week.
Just inside Sambuca's front door and to the left is a massive round performance stage that looks out over a dining area that seats approximately 250 under a tall, arched ceiling. Stage right, and with tables wrapping along the back wall of the restaurant, is the bar area, which seats 50 and will hold 100 or so more. Every seat in the building is occupied. Some of the occupants, mostly couples, appear involved in the music; some only in each other.
Center stage, tenor saxophonist Sil Austin is leading his ensemble (guitar, drums, keyboards) through a mostly instrumental musical set that encompasses jazz, vintage R&B and soul.
While not strictly a jazz musician, Austin nonetheless is the genuine article. A native of Dunnellon, Fla., Austin, 71, relocated to New York when he was 12 or so to live with his uncle, who wanted him to study music. His family debated the merits of such a dramatic move. "In those days, New York was a 'booga-boo,'" Austin says. "A lot of people from the South were going to New York, not dressing well, not taking care of themselves, catching pneumonia and coming back in boxes." Tuberculosis was a severe problem as well, he explains.
Inspired by such jazz sax legends as Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young, Austin set out "specifically to become a great horn player," he recalls. While still in his teens, Austin landed a plum job, touring for six weeks with bandleader Roy Eldridge, who had a hit record with Gene Krupa and Anita O'Day. "To get a break like that was unheard of at that time," Austin says. "I'd been playing small clubs, going to school, trying to decide what to do. I was getting a little disillusioned."
In fact, Austin, like many of his friends, was considering a job with the post office when Eldridge called. "From that moment on, everything just fell in line," says Austin, who was soon playing with Cootie Williams in the house band at Birdland. "That was a charmed gig. I had a chance to [play] with Bird [Charlie Parker], Miles [Davis], Prez [Lester Young], Max Roach, Dizzy Gillespie — everybody came through there. Just unbelievable. There's nowhere you could go to get that type of musical education."
Austin then toured with famed bandleader/composer Tiny Bradshaw before connecting with instrumental hits of his own for the Mercury label beginning in the late '50s. Among them were "Danny Boy" and the romping "Slow Walk." Austin stayed with Mercury for a dozen years, recording in a variety of motifs, including a country & western setting and with an orchestra.
In 1973, Austin moved to Atlanta. His wife, an Atlanta native, had seen enough of New York. "She said, 'I'm going home. You can come if you want to,'" Austin recalls with a laugh. (Austin's wife, in fact, is Rev. Vernice Austin, assistant minister at Union City United Methodist Church, and Sil Austin's current recording project involves gospel music, he says.)
On this night, Austin is at home on the bandstand, bending his roots in a jazz direction on both old and new material, such as the classic "Tangerine" and Stevie Wonder's "I Just Called to Say I Love You." He has impressive support from vocalist Janet Colbert on Stanley Turrentine's 1970 hit, "Sugar," and the standard "My Funny Valentine," among others.
Austin's fine performance notwithstanding, it must be noted that Sambuca is not strictly a music venue and is perhaps best enjoyed by those who want to combine their jazz listening with a romantic evening and a nice dinner. Austin closes his second set with "Slow Walk," taking a stroll off the stage, through the dining room and bar, stopping to serenade diners and drinkers along the way.
As the band takes a break, it's time to move, back into the night air, into the Ford, down Piedmont, across to Peachtree. Destination: Churchill Grounds, a tiny jazz bar and "listening room" next door to the Fox Theatre. Seating capacity: 50. Lighting: dark. Vibe: attentive, earnest. Jazz: Acoustic and "straight-ahead." Next month: pianist Gary Motley, drummer Bernard Linnette and others at Churchill Grounds.
Sil Austin and Friends return to Sambuca Jazz Café, Sat., Nov. 25.
Intros: Churchill Grounds hosts celebrated pianist Cedar Walton this Friday and Saturday. Walton is a classic old-school player and has worked with everyone from John Coltrane to Billy Higgins to Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. On Nov. 17-18, the club features pianist Kevin Bales, winner of the 1997 International Jazz Pianists competition.
Time changes: For those who've missed the Elgin Wells Group since the end of its long-standing gig at Ray's on the River, Wells says he hopes to have a new venue sometime after the first of the year. Meanwhile, Wells' recordings and a retrospective photo gallery are available online at www.elginwells.com.
Speaking of worthy websites, consider a visit to the Global Music Network at www.gmn.com. The site offers a variety of webcasts and downloads. It currently features (through Nov. 18) streaming video of George Benson's cover of Donnie Hathaway's "The Ghetto," performed in concert earlier this year from Belfast, Ireland, from the upcoming PBS special, "George Benson Absolute Live."
Next week, Columbia/Legacy and Verve roll out Ken Burns' Jazz, including a 22-CD series, a five-CD box set and a compilation CD. It's all tied in with Burns' much-anticipated 10-episode documentary series, "Jazz," which will air on PBS beginning Jan. 8. Burns' previous documentaries include "The Civil War" (1990) and the Emmy-winning "Baseball" (1994).
Coda: Tenor saxophonist Stanley Turrentine died in New York on Sept. 12 following a stroke. He was 66. Willie Cook, former trumpeter for Duke Ellington and Count Basie, died in Stockholm, Sweden, on Sept. 22. He was 75. Bossa nova guitarist/composer Baden Powell died Sept. 26 in Rio de Janeiro. He was 63. Former Ellington trombonist Britt Woodman, who also worked prominently with bassist Charles Mingus, died Oct. 13 in Hawthorne, Calif. He was 80.
Take Five is a monthly column on jazz and related subjects, with an emphasis on local artists, venues and events. Venues, performers, radio programmers and other interested parties are encouraged to e-mail or forward jazz news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045-3156.