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Arizona jazz club 'galvanizing' community

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PHOENIX -- The Nash, a non-profit, mainly volunteer-run performance and educational venue, is helping change the face of jazz in Arizona.

And that face is getting younger, a move that has "galvanized an otherwise fragmented community, so that everyone is benefiting," says Joel Goldenthal, executive director of the 37-year-old Jazz in AZ, the parent of The Nash, which, less than two years after opening, was named by Downbeat magazine as one of the world's top venues for jazz in 2014.

The Nash, named for Phoenix native Lewis Nash, a great jazz drummer, was born in April 2012 out of the common jazz dilemma: "jazz organizations, presenters, venues and educators were all having a hard time drawing young people," Goldenthal said in an interview last week in the Arizona capital.

It was the vision of Arizona lawyer and passionate jazz fan Herb Ely, who Goldenthal says enlisted his help "to open a jazz venue to give young musicians a place to perform and to draw a young jazz audience."

Goldenthal, a busy jazz pianist as well, doesn't claim The Nash has solved the problem of an aging fan base that plagues many jazz venues and festivals. But the combined club and classroom space in Phoenix's Roosevelt Row arts district has gone a long way to bringing in new blood.

"The success of The Nash is because young people felt it was their own place" right from the start, Goldenthal says. "It's their venue, rather than coming to their grandparents' venue."

Steering committees met with students, educators and fans before The Nash opened so that everyone's visions for the venue could be incorporated in the final plan; visions such as no elevated stage to give what Goldenthal describes as seamless interaction between performers and the audience. The Nash also operates under a "BYOB exception," which allows patrons to bring their own beer or wine but doesn't put restrictions on minors that a regular liquor licence would.

Area community colleges and Arizona State University regularly hold concerts and master classes with visiting musicians at The Nash as part of a master plan to concentrate jazz in one place and help secure an ongoing audience.

Lewis Nash performed at The Nash's opening, joined by trumpeter and noted educator Wynton Marsalis, who drove to Phoenix from New York at his own cost to support both Nashes, the drummer and the club.

"When musicians come from out of town they routinely say the country needs more places like The Nash," Goldenthal says. "It's a unique venue; it's a breakthrough."

Donny McCaslin, the New York-based tenor saxophonist, is one of those touring musicians.

During a March 19 performance at The Nash with his own trio of bassist Scott Colley and drummer Johnathan Blake, and with the Scottsdale Community College big band, McCaslin praised The Nash for its support of performance and education.

"It warms my heart," he said.

The saxophonist said it reminded him of a similar volunteer organization in his home town of Santa Cruz, Calif., which presented performances by jazz greats such as pianist McCoy Tyner and saxophonist Pharoah Sanders when McCaslin was a teen. It was close enough to San Francisco that bands that were booked into a club there for a week would travel to Santa Cruz for a Sunday-night gig.

McCaslin's Nash gig was a perfect example of what the club does best, Goldenthal says. The Scottsdale college has a budget to bring in musicians and uses The Nash to attract as broad an audience as possible. He adds that McCaslin had good words about the sound of the room.

The venue, which has a default cabaret-style seating of 72 but can seat 130 theatre-style, hosts 200 performances a year and 40 to 50 educational workshops, Goldenthal says. It has taken over the space next door for classes, including summer clinics.

Goldenthal is the only full-time employee and events at the venue are run by a core of 30 volunteers, including about four "who virtually live here."

"There would be no Nash without the incredibly passionate volunteers," he adds.

Funding comes from state and city arts commissions, private foundations and from the man with the original vision -- Herb Ely, and his wife Lorene, who have been "extraordinarily generous," Goldenthal says.

And when discussing the number of Winnipeggers who escape the winter by travelling to Phoenix and are potential Nash patrons, Goldenthal chuckles and says "Winnipeg is the western part of the state."

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2014 D3

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