Tom Andes’ fingers dance up and down the keys of the piano. Wearing a crooked smile, his eyes half shut in concentration, Andes is oblivious to the steady murmur of conversation in the crowded room.
It’s Saturday night at Murry’s, and as Andes and his trio finish up a jazz standard, few people seem to notice. Other than the people at a handful of tables and three enthusiasts at the bar, everyone else in the restaurant seems to have delegated the music to background noise.
Andes, who grew up in Columbia, performs at Murry’s three nights a week. In addition to Saturday evenings with his trio, Andes plays solo piano for the Murry’s dinner crowd on Mondays and Wednesdays.
“We’ve gotten used to playing in a restaurant,” Andes said. “We do it, and we’ve been getting gradually more and more people to come and stay. The eaters leave, and then the listeners come.”
But, even at Murry’s, which epitomizes jazz in Columbia, the number of listeners rarely reflects a mainstream interest in the music. Indeed, the early evening scene at Murry’s could be anywhere in America, where jazz hasn’t been part of the cultural mainstream for decades. During its peak popularity, the swing era, which lasted from the 1920s through ’40s, jazz musicians were accorded the respect of today’s rock stars. Radio stations were more committed to the music.
“In the first couple of decades of the twentieth century, jazz was the most popular music the world had ever known,” MU music professor Michael Budds said. “It was functional; it was dance music; it was background music.”
Jazz sales have been dropping for years. According to Billboard magazine, Christian Rock recently surpassed jazz in CD sales per month. And despite a steady emergence of new talent, for every jazz album sold by someone still alive, dozens more are sold that were recorded by icons of yesterday — Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Benny Goodman.
Jazz seems to have isolated its audience even as it continued to grow as an art form. During the 1950s and ’60s a group of jazz artists known as “boppers” tried to move the music to the level of art, which, for many, may have detracted from its ability to entertain. Performers still dedicated to swing are around, but a lot of jazz has changed since the ’60s.
“You have to bend your ears to listen to jazz,” said Jon Poses, executive director of the “We Always Swing” jazz series. “It’s not something that’s the same. You really have to listen, and a lot of people don’t want to.”
Poses began the “We Always Swing” series as a way to promote the music he has loved his entire life. Today, 10 years after its inception, Poses is bringing some of the biggest names in jazz to Murry’s, the Blue Note and other venues around town. This year saw the series grow to 10 concerts, and Poses expects an increase over years past in total tickets sold by the time of the final show in May.
It’s because of people like Poses and Andes and Murry’s that, whatever its appeal is elsewhere, jazz is alive and vibrant in Columbia. Andes, who studied jazz in the early ’80s at the Berkley College of Music in Boston, has been gigging steadily in Columbia for almost 15 years. Andes also teaches piano and is director of the jazz band for the Columbia Independent School.
Andes said he’s grown used to expectations and knows what people want when he plays. Earlier in the day it was a wedding reception, “wallpaper” music he called it. Before that, an art fair at Boone National Bank, where to his surprise, he got to really let loose in a duet with a bassist.
“It’s surprising, sometimes, if you play down to your audience you miss your audience,” Andes said. “If you make them listen a little harder, they like it more.”
He credits his booking success to the name recognition he gets from Murry’s, which has a pretty sophisticated audience, he said.
“Sometimes you do feel like wallpaper, but you got to weigh the good with the bad and I think there’s more positive for me because I’m playing this place, too,” he said.
Murry’s started as a dream by a couple of fans. Garry Moore and Bill Sheals always envisioned a place with jazz, although they were wise enough to not open a straight-up music club.
“We are more of a restaurant than we are anything,” he said. “We sell a lot more food than we do alcohol. The music is something that’s always going to be a part of us, but we don’t rely on the music for our business. It’s kind of a bonus. It compliments the place.”
Jazz took hold of Moore in the 1970s, at a tiny bar, long since gone, in the Landing in St. Louis. The place featured a lot of experimental jazz — pretty out there stuff, he recalled — and he’s been a fan ever since.
It’s the out-there stuff that Moore loves, though he understands that many people don’t have the patience for it; 18 years ago, when Murry’s opened for business, getting people to listen was hard.
“When we first opened, we were going to close on Saturday nights because we weren’t having much business at all,” Moore said. “At that point, we were on the outer edge of town, but we didn’t get a lot music crowd at all. Now we do.”
Even in a town like Columbia, with a strong core of supporters and a seemingly growing fan base, there aren’t a lot of places to hear the music. Murry’s has consistent live performances; other bars and restaurants have occasional shows; and the “We Always Swing” jazz series brings in big names. Still, the immediacy, the constant connection to the music isn’t around, as it is for pop music.
“People are not flowing out of the football stadiums to go to jazz clubs. It doesn’t mean that people are bad, people are stupid. People are shaped by their environment,” Budds said. “You can’t react to something you don’t know.”
No Columbia radio station dedicates the majority of its air time to jazz. Excluding National Public Radio or KOPN, which both play jazz at different times throughout the day, jazz is an almost non-entity on the radio.
“There is no MTV for jazz, and you don’t want an MTV for jazz because then it loses its charm, it loses how special jazz really is, and it’s not something for the masses. I think most people will agree,” Blue Note owner Richard King said.
Even if jazz had an MTV, it wouldn’t be the same for most fans. Jazz, particularly since the 1950s, is built on improvisation. The music can change any time, and no two sets are alike. It’s part of the appeal.
Moore said he doesn’t even like listening to jazz on CD, because it’s something he’s already heard.
“I think that’s the great thing about music,” he said. “I don’t think music should be particularly background. I think it should be something that you need and want to focus on and learn from. It’s somebody’s creative expression. It’s fun to try and figure out where they’re going with it.”
A native of San Francisco, saxophonist Lisa Rose came to Columbia six years ago to figure out where jazz would eventually take her.
“It’s a very complicated form of music, and with improvisation you are more able to express yourself than you are with other forms of music,” Rose said. “You can really let loose or play from your heart. I’m still learning and it’s always a challenge but that’s what makes it interesting.”
Rose’s move to mid-Missouri was motivated by more than the desire to grow as a musician. She felt she had to leave San Francisco, where rents were high and the cost of living demanded a full-time job if she wanted to play at all.
“When I first got here I kind of thought Columbia was a one-horse town, but I really like it,” she said. “There are a lot of really good musicians that don’t get enough credit.”
Rose, who gets the majority of her income — almost 80 percent — from teaching, plays about twice a week with her band Hot House; she also performs regularly at D’Agostinos Italian Restaurant. She knows her music may just be backdrop sometimes.
“When people go out to eat or hang out, their primary interest is in socializing, not the music,” she said. “When I’m playing for an audience, my goal is to please the audience. So there’s always a balance from what we want to play, that’s going to be fun and with a little bit of groove for people.”
With few other outlets for people to hear jazz, the burden of getting people to listen lies with local venues and their promotion. People have to hear the music to like it.
“I think anything I book is risky,” King said. “The way it all works, you’re making guarantees to the bands, and that to me is risky. The actual undertaking is risky. When I do these jazz shows, I do most of them with Jon (Poses) of the “We Always Swing” series, and he’s a pretty good source of information.”
The better-known acts that Poses and King bring in whet the appetite for jazz in Columbia and encourage local musicians to stretch their — and their listeners’ — horizons. Still, Andes gets heckles and requests for the standards, like “Piano Man” by Billy Joel, but he’s learned to deal with them.
“I used to be a smart ass about it, but I’m there to play for the people. I’ll play what they want, and then I’ll throw in a Pat Matheny tune or one of my original tunes.”
Their commitment to the music keeps Andes and Rose going. As for everyone else, it will take effort, such as those made by Poses and Murry’s, to foster a wider popularity locally.
Budds, the MU professor of music, doesn’t see jazz suddenly becoming mainstream again anytime soon.
“The idea that jazz might ever be as popular again as it was in the 1930s and ’40s is a pipe dream,” Budds said. “I don’t think the establishment exists for it anymore. Just because something is started doesn’t mean it’s going to last forever. It’s perfectly possible for jazz to go through a number of cycles.”
As the evening fades, Andes and his trio are playing to fewer and fewer people. Yet Andes remains lost in his music, communicating with the other players through chord changes and subtle shifts in rhythm, and the 10-minute jam the trio is working on has a dozen or so lingerers listening intently.
During a break earlier in the evening, Andes said, “You kind of have to stick your neck out to take a chance to create something that’s never been created before. That’s some of the exhilaration of playing jazz, it’s always different.”