Jazz Rift

Down by the tracks, there's a thriving jazz scene so authentic it's even got heartbreak

 Last year, ASU bioengineering grad Jason Wilson was at a friend's party when he was let in on a secret.

He'd found himself talking with Gaynel Hodge, a doo-wop musician and former Valley resident who now makes his home in the Netherlands. Hodge was back in town on a visit, and Wilson was thrilled to find out that the older man had been one of three people to pen the oldies hit "Earth Angel."

Wilson, a scruffy blond-haired, blue-eyed 23-year-old who'd played alto sax in high school, complained to Hodge he hadn't found any place to catch authentic jazz in the Phoenix area.

Lady J belts it out on a recent Sunday night at Virgil Bell.
Susan Jordan
Lady J belts it out on a recent Sunday night at Virgil Bell.
Irvin Tate and Carolyn Clark welcome the crowd inside the Virgil Bell VFW Post 1710 like it's their living room.
Susan Jordan
Irvin Tate and Carolyn Clark welcome the crowd inside the Virgil Bell VFW Post 1710 like it's their living room.

Hodge, Wilson says, told him there were such places -- but they were underground. He recommended one spot in particular. In, of all places, a VFW hall.

And not just any VFW hall. But a fairly decrepit-looking joint in one of the ugliest neighborhoods in town.

The next night, on assurances that Hodge would be there to introduce him to the place, Wilson made his way to Virgil Bell VFW Post 1710.

Tucked between rusted railway lines and a trucking company in a forgotten armpit of Phoenix, the brick building, painted a grungy off-white, is on Jackson Street, near 17th Street. For blocks around, no one seemed to be walking the streets, and ramshackle houses sat up against tin industrial structures, the homes of defunct businesses.

Wilson managed to find the place, but Hodge didn't show. Alone, he went inside.

There, he found something he never expected.

"I thought it was the most awesome place I'd ever seen," he remembers.

Wilson had stumbled on a small but thriving jazz scene, a once-a-week happening that, except for Wilson and a small number of other ASU students and grads that he let in on it, is like a time capsule that recalls a city of another era: segregationist Phoenix.

Black owned and operated, the Sunday night VFW jazz show has been, for some of its ardent fans, a place to remember the days when jazz greats, after finishing their shows at white nightclubs, would pull all-night jam sessions at places like Bob Tate's Rose Room, a long-vanished downtown black club.

For others, particularly young musicians, Sunday nights at Virgil Bell have given them a place to experiment with new sounds and band combos.

For Wilson, it's been a revelation. "Everyone that goes there, they only have one thing on their minds," he says. "The minute they walk through the doors, like the requirement is to drop all your pain and anguish and all the problems of the week." Classic jazz standards played by skilled musicians, a crowd of older black jazz lovers enjoying rock-bottom VFW drink prices, and the younger ASU interlopers, looking on in awe -- Wilson knows he's found a one-of-a-kind weekly party. "There's always smiles on people's faces, laughter, dancing. I mean, there's just like drinking and good times."

But beneath the surface, there's another story unfolding at Virgil Bell, one that's changing the scene in unpredictable ways, a tale that involves spurned musicians, broken partnerships and hurt feelings.

In other words, just the kind of thing you'd expect from a plaintive jazz classic belted out down by the tracks.

As the mellow standard "How High the Moon" winds down, Rhonda Legree and The Dancer are locked in an embrace, rotating by themselves on a small patch of carpet in front of the audience at Virgil Bell. Legree is curvaceous and wears her cornrow hair pulled back, a flowery, sleeveless top tied at her shoulders. At 42, she's much younger than The Dancer, a lean man dressed elegantly in a white suit unique for its short sleeves -- cut off as a concession to the Arizona heat. His gray hair is covered with a black knit skull cap, and like many of the African-American men at the VFW hall, he looks like he's old enough to be Legree's father.

When the song ends on a final, steady note, The Dancer spins Legree, holding on with a hand in a white glove -- his other hand's bare -- then stops her for a moment at arm's length before pulling her into an embrace. Their motions ceased, she smiles.

The Dancer, who won't give more of his real name than to say that it begins with Richard, strides to the bar for refreshment before finding another partner, one of a half-dozen he'll take for a spin during the evening.

"I asked him to dance because he reminded me, believe it or not, of my grandfather," Legree says later, explaining why she'd chosen the VFW's resident Casanova over her night's companion, her own fiancé. "My grandfather knew how to ballroom. One time, when I was probably in my 20s, he taught me." Since her grandfather passed away several years earlier, Legree hadn't found anyone to take her for a twirl -- until she'd spotted The Dancer charming other women. She felt compelled to ask for a dance.

"It just brought back great memories. It really did," she says, her dark eyes flashing. "It's like history repeating itself."

Which isn't, come to think of it, a bad way to describe the scene unfolding at the VFW hall -- or "the Vee," as its regulars call it.

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