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Local Jazz Musicians Make Mondays Something To Celebrate In St. Pete

The Tampa Bay area boasts some world class performing arts venues. But you don't have to pay big ticket prices to hear great music. As part of WUSF’s ongoing Art Populi series on live, local music, we visit a restaurant in downtown St. Petersburg where jazz reigns every Monday night.

(This report originally aired Nov. 27, 2017)

Mondays are often one of the slowest days of the week in the food business. But there is barely an empty seat in the house at the Hangar Restaurant and Flight Lounge at Albert Whitted Airport this particular Monday.

Diners are noshing on sandwiches, sipping wine, chatting with fellow patrons – and every few moments they pause to bop their head to a drum solo, appreciate a talented singer or cheer on whoever’s up next on the rotating list of performers at the Monday Night Jazz Jam.

The jam’s hosted by the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association. They promote jazz in the community and provide college scholarships to students who wish to pursue music.

The jam started as a monthly series back in 2010 and was known as the First Monday Night Jazz Jam. The association’s Vice President Bette Gregg remembers negotiating with the Hangar’s owner Steve Westphal. He wanted to fill more seats on Mondays; they wanted a place to play.

“We’ll [The association] pay for the musicians, all you [Westphal] have to do is give them a meal, and that was our deal,” Gregg said. “So he said ‘Okay, I’ll do that.’ So then it just went on and on like that for a while and then finally he came to us and said ‘Hey I want jazz in here every Monday night.”

There’s no cover charge to see the jam and the crowds have grown over the years. Gregg says so has the range of musicians coming to show off their skills – or at least try to.

“Some [players] are very good,” Gregg said before whispering, “And some are not so good.” Gregg chuckled and continued, “But that’s what a jam is all about, you know, anybody can come, anybody can play or sing or do whatever they do best.”

19 year-old Jonathan Kenney is a product of the jazz jam’s judgment-free zone.” He laughs when he thinks about his first time getting up on stage trying to hold his own with musicians two- and three-times his age.

“When I first started I played like every single wrong possible note in a solo,” Kenney said. “And the guy [he was playing with] kind of pulled me over and he was like, ‘Yeah, that didn’t go so well, so this is what you need to do.’ And he showed me some songs, showed me how to read chord changes and everything.”

And on this night, Kenney’s rough start was all a thing of the past, as he and another trumpet player performed a smooth duet in front of a very satisfied audience.

“The guy” who gave Kenney some pointers? He’s the host of the Monday Night Jazz Jam, fellow trumpet player Dwayne White. The longtime educator runs the scholarship committee for the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association. He says one of the best things about the jam is seeing young performers like Kenney come back after a tough gig and develop into better musicians.

“You know people say ‘Jazz is dying,’ or 'Jazz is dead,' and that couldn’t be farther from the truth,” White said.

It’s not just amateurs who use the stage to hone their skills. Even the most talented musicians need to let loose and experiment every now and then.

Later on in the evening Dwayne White called a man named John Lamb up to the stage and the crowd went wild. Lamb is a bassist who played in jazz legend Duke Ellington’s band in the 1960’s.

The 84 year-old is revered by just about every person in the room, but he doesn’t have that “celebrity” aura to him; instead he’s more like a friendly uncle.

Despite playing much bigger gigs than the one happening in the corner of the Hangar dining room, Lamb says he comes here for the fun, and to do what he loves most in life.

“This is the Kingdom of Heaven,” Lamb mused. “I’m in the Kingdom of Heaven right now, I don’t have to wait.”

The special connection between the musicians and the audience couldn’t be more clear than during the finale. Everyone who performed that night grabbed their instrument, formed a line and started parading around the restaurant, weaving through tables as customers danced and waved napkins for a rousing rendition of “When the Saints Go Marching In.”

A fitting way to wrap up a night in what John Lamb calls the “Kingdom of Heaven.”

I cover health care for WUSF and the statewide journalism collaborative Health News Florida. I’m passionate about highlighting community efforts to improve the quality of care in our state and make it more accessible to all Floridians. I’m also committed to holding those in power accountable when they fail to prioritize the health needs of the people they serve.