Keep on Buschin'

Trapsman Jay Busch, still pounding away after two decades.
Leah Fasten

Mention to Jay Busch that he seems to be scuffling for gigs, and he'll laugh. "It goes with the job description. It's like the ingredient list on a food package. "Scuffle' is near the top of the list of ingredients for a working musician." He pauses, and then adds, ""Remuneration' comes near the bottom of the list."

Busch doesn't mention money bitterly, but with a kind of matter-of-fact humor that's kept him plugging away in the Valley's music scene since arriving here from Detroit in 1981. Although he has wide-ranging tastes in music, jazz tops his list, and as Busch will tell you, no one around here plays jazz for the money.

For more than a decade, Busch headed Viva Jazz, one of the Valley's standard-bearers for the genre. The band was a Best of Phoenix winner three years running in the late '80s and early '90s. In 1996, the drummer branched out with a rhythm-and-blues band called Blues Nirvana, which has evolved into his current Jay Busch Band, Rock and Soul Revue. He's played with virtually all of the city's musical elite: Dennis Rowland, Ike Cole, Hans Olson, Charles Lewis, Dave Cook, Diana Lee, Dom Moio, Keith Greko and Chuck Marohnic, to name just a few. In addition, he teaches music courses at ASU East and runs J.B. Productions, an event management and production company.

"On the surface, it seems like such an empty cultural scene here, but underneath things are happening. Enough so that I've got a life in music, and a mortgage," he says, laughing.

However, Busch is increasingly concerned about the shrinking number of opportunities for local jazzniks to draw paychecks in the Valley. The local scene is in the midst of an especially bad drought since drummer Dave Cook's weekly jam session, a staple for a decade, was shelved recently. The number of venues offering regular gigs for Valley-based jazz and rhythm-and-blues-oriented performers appears to be at an all-time low.

"For working bands in town, this is the worst season in 15 years," Busch says. Jazz may be a tough sell, but he thinks there are other reasons for the music's tenuous hold on the club scene. "Club owners need to do their job and musicians need to do theirs. If they work together, they can build the scene." The problem, he says, is that many club owners don't respect the musicians. "When they book you, they expect you to bring 400 of your closest friends to the gig, instead of doing their own marketing homework to build the audience."

"The music business is the least businesslike business there is," adds Busch. Many musicians complain about the business, but few create opportunities for themselves and others the way Busch does. Too upbeat to brood over setbacks, Busch would rather make an end run around a brick wall than to slam into it. So he produces his own events, something he's been doing since 1982, when he staged an anti-hunger benefit at the original Chuy's.

In the early '90s, one of the smarter moves he made was to start booking jazz into Kerr Cultural Center in Scottsdale, an intimate hall that offered the perfect setting for players to showcase their music in a concert format. Because of their special-event status, the concerts have been good in drawing a variety of guest performers -- providing an opportunity for horn ensemble work and arrangements that the usual duo or single player lounge gigs don't allow. It's the kind of atmosphere that lets players stretch out without having to take requests. It was a great concept musically. Financially, Busch says, it broke even.

Busch looks back most fondly, though, on the Jazz Rhythm and Groove parties he put on at the Rhythm Room. "When I looked back, I realized the Jazz Rhythm and Groove parties were some of the most fun events I played, so why not bring them back?" So, after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus, he's reviving the concept with a gig this week, and hopes that more will follow. Rhythm Room and blues-scene stalwart Bob Corritore, who books the club, possesses the kind of scene-building prowess that could be a model for jazz clubs, and Busch is quick to thank him for the opportunity to return.

At 45, Busch's dark hair is peppered with gray, but his choirboy face doesn't reveal his age, and a youthful mischief animates his eyes. "I've reached the point where I don't feel like I've got a job anymore," he says. "Instead, I have projects to be a part of. When I was a kid, I spent a lot of quiet time doing puzzles and building models, and that's what my career is like now, a big puzzle that I'm putting together." The puzzle started coming together at age 12, when music first caught his ear. As a high school senior, he played in a rock band called Mac Dagger. At the University of Michigan, he studied the arts and was part of a modern dance troupe. He points to his parents' influence for his diverse interests: "My mother had a background in education and dance, and my father had a background in business." His drive, however, comes from another source. "My brother died in a car accident in 1973. That was a wake-up call. I remember asking myself right then, "What's the difference between an 80-year-old and an 18-year-old?' The only answer that made sense was the quality of life you create for yourself between those ages."

When Busch came to Phoenix in the early '80s, he found that few venues were interested in the harder-driving jazz he had played in Detroit. That stylistic quandary continues to be an issue. "Phoenix has become a very significant market for testing corporate culture. As a result, we hear very little cutting-edge music here of any kind. The flip side to that is if you're a musician here, it becomes easy to stagnate. It takes extra effort not to stagnate in an environment like Phoenix. You have to feed yourself and dig deeper into your own shit."

One vehicle he uses to keep himself stirred up is the classes he teaches at ASU East, the university's branch campus in Mesa. For instance, he says that his newest class on world music "is going to be influencing my life and music from here on out. I've studied 15 cultures in the past four months that I knew little or nothing about before." He runs down a list, including current Gypsy, Celtic and a batch of African musical styles and raves about their sincerity and soulfulness. "That soulfulness transcends the commercial aesthetic. It's at the perimeter of our culture, but at the perimeter, the soul's still living. That's what moves me as a musician."

It's not the first time that his background in education has helped him. Bush formed Viva Jazz so that he could play the music he loved and helpimprove local awareness of it. The educational component got the band onto the Arizona Commission for the Arts' touring roster, visiting schools and other venues around the state, as well as throughout the Southwest and Mexico. At one point, he applied for a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, which paid a third of the costs for bringing the band into a town.

A similar blend of business and aesthetics motivated his launch of Blues Nirvana. Noting that the local popularity of "smooth jazz" radio stations like KYOT was prompting clubs to book more rhythm-and-blues-based acts, he decided to exploit his growing interest in the genre to tap into the new market. As an educator and musician, he'll be the first to tell you that the much-derided "smooth jazz" style isn't really jazz, but rather a watered-down version of R&B and rock. For his part, Busch prefers to offer a grittier interpretation. Tell him that his band's version of the Beatles' "Come Together" would fit well in the smooth jazz radio format, and he notes, "They've already told me that it's too hard for them."

Busch admits that middle age and all the hoopla surrounding the "new millennium" spurred him to take stock of what he did in the last decade and to consider where he wants to go from here. As a result, he's compiled a two-CD retrospective, called Been There, Done That, Thank You!, which he plans on giving away as a promotional item.

"I mean that "thank you' in the title sincerely," says Busch. "I've been fortunate to play with some pretty good people. I learned a lot from all of them, even the guys who don't like me anymore." The Jazz Rhythm and Groove Party featuring the Jay Busch Band, Rock and Soul Revue, Big Pete Pearson, Dennis Rowland, Dave Cook, Les Paul Roque, Blues Ratio, Extreme Decibel Big Band, Matt Roe, Renee Rice, Cynthia Poole, Denise Martin, Dave Schmidt and Darryl Wright is scheduled for Sunday, May 28, at the Rhythm Room. Showtime is 8 p.m. Proceeds from the event will benefit the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metropolitan Phoenix.

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