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The Jazz Age: After years of struggle, jazz music in Miami has hit a tipping point

For years, South Florida jazz fans were a frequently frustrated lot. The city never seemed able to support a jazz club for long. There were few concerts by nationally known acts, and local artists struggled for bookings and respect.

But over the past six years the status of this great and variegated American musical art form has been shifting in Miami — a change that seems to have reached a tipping point this season. Jazz is everywhere, from the stars of Jazz Roots at the Adrienne Arsht Center to homegrown musicians at community radio station WDNA’s café gallery. From rising acts drawing culture-hungry audiences at the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center to jazz concerts by longtime presenters Miami Dade College, Miami Light Project, FundArte and Tigertail Productions. And from a wealth of acts in the University of Miami Frost School of Music’s annual Festival Miami to free concerts in the lobby of downtown’s Gusman Center for the Performing Arts.

The quantity and variety of music, and the audience to support it, appear to have hit a critical mass.

“Things go in cycles,” says Tigertail executive director Mary Luft, who has been presenting jazz, often from its experimental edge, since she launched Tigertail in 1980. She opens her season on Saturday with neo-bop vocalist and pianist Johnny O’Neal. “It’s like a rediscovery. Jazz never disappeared.”

Luft attributes the music’s growing popularity here in part to the city’s growth, with more tourists looking for more than beaches and nightclubs, and more South Florida residents with varied and educated tastes in music. “Miami is growing up and becoming more sophisticated … and diversifying in what it offers,” she says.

A critical trigger of the music’s growing momentum seems to be Jazz Roots, which opens its seventh season on Nov. 9 with Georgia on My Mind: Celebrating Ray Charles, a show that will include a cappella group Take 6 and pianist Shelly Berg, dean of the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music.

The mix is typical of what has proved to be an extremely successful formula: big names in a themed event, usually straddling a more accessible genre like R&B – all of which boosts appeal to a general audience. Other shows this season include one pairing Cuban trumpet virtuoso Arturo Sandoval with salsa singer Willy Chirino, and a Jazz Meets Broadway show with singers Michael Feinstein and Christine Ebersole.

Arsht Center executive vice president Scott Shiller said the series, which regularly sells out, includes “the diversity of musical styles and themes that fall under the umbrella of jazz but stretch into R&B, into Broadway, into hip-hop … the idea is the DNA of jazz has infiltrated so many styles of music.”

Now, instead of having to persuade artists to come to Miami, Shiller says, the Arsht fields calls from agents eager to bring their clients to a city they’ve heard is a friendly place for jazz.

While some purists are critical of the series, its visibility and popularity has boosted audiences and awareness here.

“Some people say what’s included in Jazz Roots isn’t jazz,” says Tracy Fields, host of a weeknight WLRN-FM jazz broadcast on which she plays everything from avant-garde to classic music. “But I know the plan was to grow the audience, to offer things that might be more accessible to people who might not consider themselves jazz listeners.”

That’s fine with dedicated veterans like Maggie Pelleya, longtime general manager of WDNA, the Miami community radio station whose programming is three-quarters jazz. “Anything that builds an audience for jazz, we all benefit,” Pelleya says.

Six years ago, WDNA moved into a new building in Coral Gables and began presenting concerts in the gallery and performance space there. The casual, community-oriented events, mostly featuring local artists, offer moderately priced tickets that include wine and other refreshments. The station has branched out into Jazz Encounters, a monthly event at which middle- and high -school students jam with professionals. The events include lectures, films and out-of-town acts.

Pelleya says that not only do the shows regularly sell out, they draw an audience whose diversity has surprised her.

“If we have 100 people I would say maybe 20 of them are repeats,” she says. “I see a lot of new people. What really surprises us is when people come from Weston and Miramar and Pembroke Pines and Key Largo. Because people follow us on the internet, I even get calls and emails, “I’m coming from New York, is there anything happening at the station?”

The ages vary as well. “We used to think jazz was strictly for gray-haired folks,” Pelleya says. “But there are 20-somethings and even teenagers. It’s definitely grown, overall.”

Those budding musicians come from a growing number of music programs, which have been another major factor in the spread of jazz here. At UM, Dean Berg has increased the focus on jazz at the Frost School of Music (whose ensembles regularly perform at Jazz Roots) and in Festival Miami, its showcase music event. (This year the festival, running from Friday through Nov. 9, includes a Latin-Brazilian jazz show with percussionist Sammy Figueroa and Brazilian singer Glaucia Nasser on Oct. 18, and singer Patti Ausin in a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald on Oct. 22.)

Florida International University also offers a strong jazz department. Young musicians are fostered at arts magnet high schools like Coral Reef in South Dade, Dillard in Fort Lauderdale, and the New World School of the Arts in downtown Miami. Or music programs like the one run by Coral Gables Congregational Church (which presents a fine and popular summer jazz concert series), and at regular schools such as Miami High in Little Havana.

“We are constantly producing more talent,” says Fields. “More kids are studying, so they’re becoming better musicians and better audiences and bringing their friends and families along.”

Traditional jazz clubs, the historic home of jazz, still struggle here. Arturo Sandoval’s club at the Deauville Resort in Miami Beach, the city’s most high-profile jazz venue in several decades, closed in 2008 after just two years. Earlier this year, Avenue D, a downtown Miami venue that showcased jazz and blues, shut down — even as a new club, Le Chat Noir de Salis, recently opened next door.

But more general presenters are including jazz amid dance and theater shows. Prominent among them is the South Miami-Dade Cultural Arts Center, where general manager Eric Fliss has focused on building an audience for the music in an area where culture had long been in short supply, with high-profile concerts in the 900-seat main theater and a cabaret series for a small 150-seat venue.

“I thought it would be a great way to do something a little unique compared to what other presenters were doing,” Fliss says. Some acts, like the trio of six-time Grammy nominee Fred Hersch, or the Martin Bejerano Trio led by the University of Miami piano professor, both on the center’s cabaret series, appeal mostly to hardcore affcionados. Others, such as Trinidadian trumpet player Etienne Charles, who performs Nov. 1 as part of the Miami Nice Jazz Festival, have the potential to appeal to a specific part of South Dade’s diverse population — as Latin percussionist Poncho Sanchez did last year when he swelled the usual jazz audience from 600 to near capacity of the center’s 900-seat main theater.

“There’s a really great audience of dedicated enthusiasts that come back time and again,” Fliss says. “As we play with the genre or the cultural connections, we either build on that or start to bring in new audiences.”

And those audiences are finding more and more jazz in Miami.

“For years it’s been the case that something was going on jazz-wise every night if you looked,” said radio hos

t Fields. “Now you don’t have to look as hard.”