Step outside and the sound encompasses you, and you wonder where this god-given sound emerges from — not around you, not behind you, not in front of you, not even beside you. No, to feel this high you gotta float that high, and let your down feathers up and down and up and sublime you fly onto the rooftop of some place that must be my heaven but they call it Artpace, which must mean heaven on the tower of Babel because it doesn’t matter what language you speak here, baby, no all you gotta do is open your heart and supplicate your sweet soul and hedonistically soak in the unmistakable vibration of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. Ooh, if this don’t get you speaking in tongues, I don’t know what will.
Jazz. The rooftop. Libations. Artpace has found a popular combination for its monthly concert series. Why does it make sense?
“It’s indelible,” Neil Phelps said, his fire sparked by the sibilant sound in the word “jazz.”
“It will never go away. You come up here and dig these sounds and you know that jazz is alive in San Antonio,” Phelps said. “It is a permanent imprint on your psyche. It is a positive version of jazz.”
If you recognize the powerful sway and swagger of these words, if you can hear the voice behind them, it’s because you’ve heard it before. Phelps is the host of 91.7 KRTU’s “Sunday Best,” bringing jazz-lovers and soul-searchers an opportunity to use the music as a meditative experience, an experiment in gratitude, every seventh day from 6-8 p.m.
One of the foremost consumers of jazz in our community, Phelps is anywhere the groove is swingin’.
“Jazz is not just alive, but jazz is young,” Phelps said, digging on the diverse crowd at hand atop the rooftop at Artpace. “Twenty-somethings, thirty-somethings, forty-somethings, fifty-somethings; they’re all here and having a ball, like back in the day.”
(It’s challenging to do Phelps’s powerful cadence justice in this dimension, but the closing measure to his lyrical jazz ode was one of the more powerful I’ve experienced as a writer).
“You can’t beat it, you can’t beat it,” Phelps proclaimed. “It’s jazz in the Alamo City…BAM! ‘There’s no other way to say it’ …BAM!” And the poet of Langstonian stature roared his mighty laugh and exited the stage.
Fluttering yet grounded. Screaming yet silent. Soulful yet surface. Present yet past. Each tune a magnificent display of the fullness of the human experience, the ability to strike chords of joy with harmonies of pain, to dig up the roots while planting new trees to grow and blossom and reach out to the people before the sound, the sound that is so much greater than they.
Last Friday, The Hardbop Project payed tribute to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers.
Contemporary players take on the roles of jazz legends: Barry Brake takes the regal throne behind the keys as Bobby Timmons, Logan Keese properly young and ebullient taking the role of Lee Morgan on trumpet, Rich Oppenheim trading Benny Golson’s tenor for an alto and blowin’ all kinds of soul, Greg Norris thumping the foundational beat as Jymie Merritt, and approaching the more ineffable of figures in the jazz idiom, Darren Kuper takes his stab as Mr. Blakey himself for this rendition of “Dat Dere.” And as you feel those shocks in your chest, that discomforting sway that still leaves you balanced, you jump inside but stay on your feet as you understand the complex message of jazz music and all it represents; there is no escaping any of the colors, bright or blue.
Leaning against the edge of the world, her passion precedes her and the cool composure of a job well done is in her rhythm and tone, echoing the music behind her.
“I don’t think that a lot of people are exposed to jazz; these events make jazz accessible and makes fans of people that may not have been exposed to the music,” Inessa Bicknell, Membership and Development Associate at Artpace San Antonio, said, referring to the Rooftop Series that has been a collaboration of KRTU and Artpace since last summer.
Subconsciously soaking in the atmospheric beauty of the skyline all around, Bicknell pointed to the location of Artpace as a blessing in sharing this music.
“Artpace is placed perfectly for this downtown revitalization that is happening,” she said. “We are so fortunate to have the rooftop; it’s unlike anything else in San Antonio.”
While they provide the space and spend a great deal of love and energy in creating these events, Bicknell continuously stressed gratitude for the partnerships involved in making these events a veritable hit.
Collaboration: the word that was authentic and heartfelt upon Bicknell’s lips, the key to success in her mind.
“This event is creating a collaborative culture,” Bicknell said, contributing to the mission at Artpace. “For anybody that succeeds, you can’t do it on your own, you need good critiques, good positive feed back. This has completely surpassed what JJ and I planned for, and I am extremely proud.”
Musing upon the future of such efforts, Bicknell continued to riff in the synergistic key.
“Expectations are being created for music and food and art to be married, and people should expect that. People should desire that and require that,” Bicknell said. “Food, music, and art are very creative institutions, all visual languages. It makes sense to me.”
Wafting into the air with aroma that mixes classy with homegrown and savory, the first of the sensory experiences to greet you is provided by the sight of a food truck, humble yet proud in its ability to meet the people at their speed of life and provide them with the fuel to be spirited all night long. The light and airy conversations that dance along sidewalks before going nowhere at all, the food truck is a place where anybody can be anybody, and where the little man or woman behind the window becomes a mysteriously lovely representation of some new magnetic force in our culinary appreciations. Working long hours in a space that only amplifies the SA summer sizzle, the boys of Tailgate Bistro are proud to be a facet of this city’s movement into the next stratosphere, and are committed to the spirit of collaboration.
Waiting in line for the second round of Blue Moon, Steven Quintanilla, co-founder of Space Cadet and partner at Tailgate Bistro, captured the flare of his role with explosive ease.
“It’s pretty simple. The party gets going, fuel gets used. The food acts as fuel, so when the party gets going you add fuel and the party keeps going,” Quintanilla said, enjoy the same rhythm section as Phelps before him and feeling equally inspired. “So why you need food at a rooftop party so a rooftop party don’t stop? Cuz the rooftop’s like the rocket and food is the fuel!”
Bringing the notes back down to a grounded beat, Quintanilla dug deeper into the importance of what he loves and how it adds a little spice to the mix.
“It’s all about contributing to the cultural renaissance of the city. What’s going on here with the art and music, that’s one slice of the entire evolution and iteration of the renaissance,” she said.
In the true spirit of jazz, the energy in the room affected all in a similar way, leading words to be picked up and tossed around, spun in the fashion of choice, and displayed for all to see and decorate anew. “You got technology, industry, environment; we’re a part of the arts section,” Quintanilla explained. “It’s a collaborative, a symbiotic relationship, in that we all need each other. This is a cultural ecosystem.”
Verging on fantastic, certainly tipped over into extraordinary, the scene was hard to fully absorb and experience in its entirety. Most people flocked into corners with their cocktails on ice, chattering away as birdies do, just grateful for the cool breeze. Others still got a closer look at the bandstand, admiring musician and the relationship between instrument and hand, heart and soul, body and mind. They were closer to understanding, and maybe some did. For to truly lose yourself (or find yourself) or the ever-elusive “it” in this scene, you had to jump up into the groove yourself, be an instrument in the pulse and flow of the every moving ever unknowing of it all. To throw yourself into the backdrop of the musicians, a constant visual that mirrored the improvisational spirit of the men of the two and four. In it the work of an artist of a whole new design, the member Art Blakey never had, bringing to the experience that fifth dimension that every photographer needs to make something truly beyond words.
Chillin’ with a cigarette on the steps of the stage as whispers of musicians fold out into the late evening clouds, artist Chris Jackson a.k.a VJ Fourth Wall, broke down his take on the scene. “I really wanna play with the idea of improvisation, it’s at the core of jazz music,” Jackson said. “I am walking on without much game plan, pretty much a blank screen when I come out. Which is mostly by design, and it usually works out.”
It played out perfectly this evening, as Jackson used his wizardry with visual art to give a live video display to compliment the nature of the musician’s set and provide a whole new feeling to the groove. “Tonight I did a little ground work, and found some archival work of Blakey and the Jazz Messengers,” Jackson said, referring to a psychedelic sort of ’80s sketch-out representation of the ensemble playing live. “I come in with notes I wanna hit, kinda like a jazz band. I’m always listening.”
For a great opportunity on the SA scene in terms of collaboration with the arts, food and music, be sure to check out the soft opening of the Mana House, a newly established nexus for creative collaboration and expression in the heart of Sunset Station this Friday, August 1 from 6-8 p.m. The space will be filled with art from Jeanette MacDougall and music will be provided by Soulzzafying (including yours truly).