Jazz is known as the original American art form, but its commercial appeal and notoriety often take a back seat to Rock, Pop, Hip-Hop and Country. But Eric Essix and the Alys Stephens Center are about to bring Jazz back into the spotlight with the series “Jazz: The Essentials.” Essix – the virtuoso guitarist, Birmingham resident and UAB artist-in-residence – will host the series that commences with pianist Marcus Roberts’ performance in the Jemison Concert Hall on Thursday, April 10. Designed to bring a variety of artists and musical styles to the venue, “Jazz: The Essentials” will both entertain and educate audiences. Recently, we caught up with Essix by phone.
Brent Thompson: Eric, thanks for your time today. In addition to his Thursday night performance, Marcus will give another performance that same day to a large group of students from this area. I’ve heard you speak of the importance of bringing Jazz to our youth.
Eric Essix: What I’ve found is that when you present this music to young people, they really enjoy it but nobody presents it to them. Every year I do clinics around the state of Alabama as part of the Artists Touring program. The Arts Council is one of the sponsors of this and I also fund it with my own company. It’s just amazing – we do a one-hour show with a Q & A at the end. We play Jazz in a lot of different styles – we show them how it relates to Blues and Gospel. The response from these kids – it always amazes me how interested they are. A lot of them say, “I didn’t want to come to this assembly – now I’m so glad I did.” I think it’s all in presenting it.
BT: It’s my understanding that Jazz is often appreciated more by overseas audiences than in our own country.
EE: It’s absolutely true and I’ve witnessed it many times touring overseas, especially in Europe. In Israel and India they like Traditional Jazz as opposed to Contemporary Jazz.
BT: How long do you see “Jazz: The Essentials” running and what can audiences look forward to with this series?
EE: We’ve looked at three years. We are going to do anywhere from one to three performances a year, hopefully. This year, there will be two and next year there will be two or three. When you look at the different genres of music, a few stand out and we’d like to address the main ones. The next one is Swing and Big Band and we have to do Bebop, Fusion and Contemporary Jazz. I’d love to do Afro-Cuban, Bossa Nova and Latin Jazz.
BT: Given your career and notoriety, your involvement in the series gives it a tremendous amount of credibility.
EE: Thank you for that. I am honored that they asked me to do this to be perfectly candid with you. I’ve had a few conversations with Marcus and he called me on the phone the other day. Every time I see his number on my phone, I’m just amazed. This is a real honor for me to be a part of this.
Tickets to the Marcus Roberts show are $38.50 and can be purchased at www.alysstephens.org or by calling 975-2787. Showtime is 7 p.m.
Photos – Top: Marcus Roberts, Bottom: Eric Essix