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July 22, 2014

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MUSIC:

Jazz struggling to find a place

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Sam Morris

Norm Ross plays bass with the Pierre Dube Trio as part of Saturday Jazz Conversation Series.

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As part of her campaign to keep jazz alive in Las Vegas, Marsha K. Ross produces the Saturday Jazz Conversation Series at the Black Label lounge. The lounge volunteers the room and bands are paid only what's collected at the door.

IF YOU GO

What: Jimmy Wilkins New Life Orchestra

When: 2 p.m. Aug. 1

Where: Black Label, 3550 S. Decatur Blvd.

Admission: $10 contribution; 823-2222

Also: David Poe Dixieland Jazz Band, 3 to 6 p.m. Sunday; $5 contribution

On the Web: lvjazzconversations.com

Marsha K. Ross is waging a one-woman campaign to keep live jazz alive.

The vocalist hosts jazz concerts, featuring a rotating lineup of artists, at the Black Label lounge on Saturday afternoons.

She books the musicians, hosts, runs the sound board, sweeps the floors. Her husband, bassist Norm Ross, borrows chairs from a local church for extra seating if needed.

“This isn’t a jam session,” Ross says. “I always invite specific groups. The idea is to keep jazz alive, all different aspects of it. Sometimes I have more musicians than I have fans.”

The Saturday afternoon jazz performances began in January and are anchored by Jimmy Wilkins and his big band, which plays the first Saturday of each month. The sessions have attracted superb musicians — pianist Vincent Falcone, saxophonist Rocky Gordon, trombonist Nathan Tanouye and pianist David Loeb, head of the UNLV jazz program. Except for Wilkins’ sessions, the concerts are on summer hiatus and will return in September.

“The band only gets paid by whatever is collected at the door. Theirs is an act of love,” she says. “The Black Label just lets me use the room — all they get is what they make from the bar, which is not much. My folks aren’t drinkers.”

She said she started the project because everyone kept saying there was no place to hear good, straight-ahead jazz.

“It’s all smooth jazz,” Ross says. “There’s no place to hear bebop or straight ahead.”

She isn’t in it for money. She doesn’t get paid.

“If I can get musicians to come in for the price of the door and get some jazz going, maybe we can start something,” she says.

She arrived in Vegas in ’94 after singing for years in the Bay Area. There were a few good places to hear live jazz in Vegas back then — the Riviera and the Four Queens, for example.

“But it was on the downslide,” she says. “When we arrived the city had just gone through the musicians union’s strike (1989) and the casinos were going more to canned music.”

Ross says one of the problems trying to make jazz thrive is too many cliques.

“They won’t come out and support all forms of jazz,” she says. “Some will only listen to bebop, nothing avant garde.”

Fridays at Pogo’s have new sound

The obituary didn’t run anywhere, but jazz died quietly at Pogo’s Tavern a few weeks back.

For almost 40 years the modest local bar on North Decatur Boulevard was home to a Friday night jam session that attracted some of the best local jazz artists and their fans, who for years have bemoaned dwindling access to their favorite kind of live music.

New owner Bill Stypowany tried to keep jazz night alive after he took over and remodeled the place last year.

But the heartbeat was weak, the pulse almost gone by the time he came along.

Jim Holcombe, who bought the club in 1968, started the weekly jam as a friend-maker. “You can’t make money on jazz,” he once said.

Stypowany discovered that jazz fans don’t spend a lot on alcohol and don’t play the poker machines. So he decided to go in a different direction — Hawaiian music. The band Latitude 20 now lays claim to Friday nights.

“They’ve been packing in the crowds,” Stypowany says. “I hated to cut out the jazz, but what are you going to do? You’ve got to survive.” Many of the musicians who anchored the jam over the years are gone, including Irv Kluger, the drummer who led the band for 20 years, and saxophonist Irv Gordon. Holcombe died in 2005; he was 76.

Keyboardist Dick Fazio, 70, who took over for Kluger in a vain attempt to keep the music alive, suffered a stroke and no longer performs.

The musicians have spread across the valley, looking for other places to play. But it’s like trying to find water in the desert.

Many, like 85-year-old trombonist Jimmy Dell, are too old to travel very far. Even after a stroke, Dell would walk a few blocks to Pogo’s every Friday carrying his instrument, and when the session ended at midnight he walked home.

Only time will tell if a jazz jam will be resurrected at Pogo’s.

A LIVE JAZZ SAMPLER:

• DeStefano’s, 3430 E. Tropicana Ave. Suite 33; Gents of Swing; 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays

• Lucio Ristorante, 8615 W. Sahara Ave., (former site of the Jazzed Cafe); Friday night jazz jam sessions featuring Dennis Mellen, Sean West, Kent Foote and others from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m.

• Ichabod’s Lounge, 3300 E. Flamingo Road; Thursday jazz nights featuring Howie Gold and guest artists; 6 to 9:30 p.m.

• Freakin’ Frog, 4700 S. Maryland Parkway; entertainment varies

• Boomers, 3200 Sirius Ave.; entertainment varies

• The Square Apple, 1000 E. Sahara Ave.; hot spot for jazz most nights

• Bootleggers, 7700 Las Vegas Blvd. South; jazz on various nights with Gus Mancuso and others

• Gordon Biersch Brewery Restaurant, 3987 Paradise Road; Sunday jazz brunch

• Osaka Japanese Restaurant, 10920 S. Eastern Ave., Henderson Jazz; 8 p.m. Thursdays

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