Melissa Weber is marveling at the architectural details and acoustics-conscious stage set-up at the Little Gem Saloon’s Ramp Room on the historic 400 block of North Rampart Street. As is often the case here, the stage is dark, the room is empty and the sounds of tipsy tourists emanate from downstairs. Weber hopes to change that.
On September 12, vibraphonist Warren Wolf kicks off Weber’s Gem Sessions, a monthly modern-jazz series presenting some of the genre’s most acclaimed artists to a city where opportunities to see such music are limited. She believes New Orleans has the potential to cultivate a richer modern-jazz scene.
“There’s an incredible difference since the late ’90s,” says pianist Jesse McBride, who has taught some of the best young modern-jazz talent in the city. Still, he says, gigs seem to be declining. “It’s hard to work as a jazz musician in the city that built the music we call jazz.”
Bassist Jasen Weaver agrees. His band, The Session, is arguably one of the most exciting young modern-jazz groups in New Orleans today, but he says “securing a successful amount of gigs” is a constant challenge. “I know several bands in town that have great original material but the gigs are spotty,” says Weaver. “The most common question I get from visiting musicians is, ‘Where can I go hear modern jazz?’ That’s sort of a problem. There’s no definitive place for it.”
Snug Harbor’s Jason Patterson admits the landscape has changed, observing that his club survived when others didn’t in part because of the financial advantage its restaurant afforded. “We were well into the ’80s and ’90s before we started making money on music,” he says.
Irvin Mayfield and his Staff Director Stephanie Mayne program a variety of local modern jazz, and they agree that “the more [music clubs] there are, the more people come.” But presenting this music can be financially risky.
“They would consistently underperform as far as ticket sales, despite our best promotional efforts,” explains former Tipitina’s Uptown talent buyer Lindsay Adler. She believes part of the problem is that although New Orleans is “heralded as a jazz town” that “doesn’t seem to apply to any genre other than traditional jazz.”
Jeff Albert’s Open Ears series tends to feature more avant-garde styles than what Weber is presenting, but its staple artists—Brad Walker, James Singleton, Rex Gregory, Helen Gillet—consistently compose some of the city’s best new music. And Albert frequently books creative improvising musicians from Chicago, all of whom he presents for donation-based cover charge.
“It would be great to have more places to play,” says McBride, “but you have to be creative and relentless. That’s part of being an artist.”
MORE: read about the Gem Sessions’ featured modern jazz guest for the September 12 series kick-off, Warren Wolf here.