This month, we’re listening to wailing saxophones, mesmerizing piano arpeggios and groovy drum rhythms. That’s right—we’ve got jazz on our minds and in our ears as Jazz Appreciation Month kicks off! Influenced by blues music and other musical styles originating in African American communities, the jazz genre started permeating dance clubs and bars in the early 20th century, and with the venues’ increased popularity during the prohibition era, the Jazz Age of the 1920s was born. Since then, the original swinging form of jazz has expanded into numerous subgenres, from bebop to Latin Jazz, tapping into the improvisational talents of musicians of all kinds.
Levitt venues have seen many a jazz artist grace their stages, each with a unique take on this rich genre. Some of these acts have even performed alongside jazz’s most influential musicians and are major players in their own right, having made significant contributions to the genre. While it’s impossible to choose our favorite jazz acts, here are four to start with—all of whom played Levitt stages over the years!
Levitt Pavilion Pasadena 2003-2016
Levitteers in Pasadena are familiar with Barbara Morrison’s name—this powerhouse jazz singer has performed at Levitt Pavilion Pasadena every year since the venue opened in 2003! Morrison has been a hot ticket vocalist amongst music legends throughout her career, touring and recording with the likes of Ray Charles, Eddie “Cleanhead” Vison, Etta James and Tony Bennett. Today, she continues to tour as a solo artist, performing jazz and blues classics at venues and jazz festivals all over the world.
Levitt Shell Memphis 2015
Since 2013, the Rhodes College Jazz Band has played annual concerts at Levitt Shell Memphis—just across the street from the group’s university campus—featuring a renowned guest artist. Last year, it was tenor saxophonist George Coleman, and the year prior was Coleman’s contemporary and a fellow Memphian artist—composer and multi-instrumentalist Charles Lloyd, who was 77 years old at the time of the concert. Like Coleman, Lloyd was named a 2015 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, the highest honor the country bestows upon jazz artists. Having performed alongside a wide array of musical acts, from jazz greats to rock bands (Doors, Beach Boys), Lloyd is credited with expanding the jazz audience during the 1960s. His early experimentation with traditional sounds from different countries and cultures also paved the way for jazz fusion, a subgenre which incorporates non-Western musical styles.
The Hot Sardines
Levitt Pavilion Westport 2015, 2016
Called “one of the best jazz bands in NYC today” by Forbes Magazine, The Hot Sardines revives sounds of traditional jazz for modern audiences, incorporating jazz, blues, pop and rock influences. The band was formed over its founding members’ love of early 20th century pop, and while its membership lineup isn’t fixed, The Hot Sardines is always fronted by the bilingual Elizabeth Bougerol, who sings in English and French. Today, the band brings their jubilant music to jazz fans all around the world, from New York City’s Rainbow Room to the Festival d’Île de France in Paris.
Levitt Pavilion Los Angeles 2010; Levitt Pavilion Pasadena 2014, 2015, 2016
Still active at 81 years old, Pete Escovedo got his start playing percussion in a Latin jazz group formed with his brothers in the 1960s when the legendary Carlos Santana handpicked him to join the Santana band. Escovedo’s versatility made him desired by jazz greats like Herbie Hancock and Tito Puente, as well as a major force in Latin music. The veteran musician passed down his talents to his daughter, the singer and percussionist Sheila E., with whom he occasionally performs, like at the White House where they performed Tito Puente’s “Oye Como Va.”
Don’t see your favorite jazz artist who’s performed on a Levitt stage? Let us know in the comments below! And if you’re in the Memphis area, Levitt Shell Memphis is presenting Five Fridays of Free Jazz which continues next Friday, April 14 at the Benjamin Hooks Library with the Southern Comfort Jazz Orchestra!