Vermont Jazz Center’s Weekly Jam Session

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(Host) Jazz has always been a democratic art form. It has been a meeting ground for people of different races and economic strata. The music has evolved in part through an institution known as the jam session, in which musicians gather to improvise and play.

That tradition is still thriving at the Vermont Jazz Center in Brattleboro, where musicians and fans come together every Wednesday for the weekly jazz jam.

VPR’s Susan Keese reports.

(Keese) The Vermont Jazz Center’s studio is in an old red brick factory near Brattleboro’s south end. Every Wednesday night at eight, jazz center director Eugene Uman opens the studio for the weekly jam session. It’s a big empty room until the music starts. Uman sets up some mikes and throws the cover off his piano. Soon the people start arriving.

There’s a professional bass player from Massachusetts, a saxophonist from Bellows Falls, a couple of students in their teens. Also a singing chef, a keyboard-playing lawyer and an audience of six or eight. Uman starts things off with a Wayne Shorter Tune. (Sound of piano melody fading in and out.)

The Jazz Center offers lessons, monthly concerts and a summer workshop at the Putney School in August. But Uman says the Wednesday jams are the center’s backbone because they bring people together. And that, he says, is what jazz is all about:

(Uman) “Jazz has always been a community music. It’s always been the kind of music where people learn from one another by playing with one another. It’s hard to learn jazz in an academy, without that aspect of jazz where you just get together and hang out and play music together.”

(Keese) The Jazz Center was founded by the late Atilla Zoller, a larger-than-life Hungarian guitarist. Zoller moved to New York from Europe in the 1950s. He played with Benny Goodman, Herbie Hancock and other jazz greats.

In the 1970s Zoller bought some land in Newfane and began inviting friends and students to play. Jazz Center president Howard Brofsky is a trumpet player who was lured to Vermont by Zoller:

(Brofsky) “They’d stay at his house for several days and he’d cook goulash and other Hungarian dishes for them, and they’d be playing from morning till the wee hours of the morning.”

(Keese) Brofsky helped Zoller launch the concerts and summer workshops that grew out of those early sessions. They’re still going strong. Mark Anagnostopolus is a Brattleboro psychologist who shows up almost every Wednesday to sing. He says the Jazz Center adds a lot to the local culture.

(Anagnostopolus) “It’s brought an incredible caliber of musicians for concerts and summer workshops for years. Some of the best people from New York will come up here to teach or to play. And you don’t expect to see that in a town the size of Brattleboro in the kind of a rural location.”

(Keese) As director, Uman is involved in all the jazz center’s activities. At the jams, he functions as an air traffic controller.

(Connolly) “Eugene pretty much knows everybody and has a wonderful way of including the right people at the right time.”

(Keese) Vocalist Jill Connolly runs a sound studio in Massachusetts. When it’s her turn to solo she suggests a song that s been on her mind all day. (Sound of piano trill, singing, “You are the promised kiss of springtime¿.”)

(Connolly) “It’s basically a toss-a-couple-of-bucks in the hat for expenses kind of thing. Come and hear people, come and meet people. It’s all totally live. It’s all totally off the cuff…. People call a tune and hang in there and solo together and… create as they go.¿”

(Keese) For Vermont Public Radio, I’m Susan Keese in Brattleboro.

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