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.
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.
During the week, the hall hosts the card and dominoes games of aging GIs, but on Sundays from 7 to 10 p.m., the place becomes a jazz club. And not just any jazz, but the hard stuff, served straight with no chaser. Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, Count Basie and other masters of swing and bebop played by several different groups and featuring an impressive list of guest musicians: Jessie Maguire, the trumpet player known for playing the national anthem at major sporting events, singer Margo Reed, Joey DeFrancesco the famous organist and other artists, many of whom have stopped by unannounced.
Walk inside, and your eyes take a while to adjust to the dim light coming from red lamps that barely illuminate the round wooden tables and vinyl swivel chairs. Your nose is assaulted with the greasy odors of pan-fried catfish and other soul food staples -- cornbread, collard greens, black-eyed peas with rice and gravy. Near the bar, meanwhile, there's a sign with a stern warning: "No profanity," it reads.
"There are a lot of things in here that are old. It gives the place character," Legree says, while she stands in a back passageway beside an antique cigarette machine that sells only Winston Lights. "It's a little bit of young and little bit of old. That's what makes this place survive -- that it's eclectic. You know, there are young people running in here, there are older people running in here. And if you look at the menu, it's indicative of that. Tonight they have pasta and smothered pork chops. The younger crowd will go for pasta. It's breast of chicken, it's boneless, it's skinless. And the older people will go for smothered pork chops."
The drinks are cheap, too, because the VFW is a nonprofit organization, and there's only a $5 cover charge.
"Jazz is not a moneymaker," says James Greene, the VFW's incoming post commander and, by day, a computer network administrator. Sometimes, because the mostly middle-aged and older crowd doesn't drink enough to cover costs, the VFW has to pitch in to help the promoters pay musicians. But Greene says he's determined to keep the shows happening at Virgil Bell. "A lot of people from different walks of life come in here and enjoy the music," he says. "Giving back to the community -- that's the benefit."
Onstage, meanwhile, organ player Royce Murray is testifyin' to his congregation.
"Last time, we did this song because the drummer didn't go to church," says the 52-year-old with the full mustache, ponytail and shiny gold necklace. "We gonna do it today because the organist didn't go to church."
The audience of about 40 meets his confession with a round of "Uh-ohs!" as he laughs.
"I know you all went to church, right?" asks the charismatic leader of A Touch of Blues, a trio that, besides Murray's Hammond B3, features Paul Anderson on saxophone and Sherman Austin Martin on drums.
Murray shuts his eyes and lays his fingers on the keys. The audience stills as a gospel-sounding intro begins to emanate from the organ. Murray's head drops and shifts with each new note, as if willpower alone was powering the instrument. The opening builds in intensity.
"Amen!" someone shouts as Murray's opening reaches a crescendo and his bandmates jump in to accompany him. Murray's trio has become a mainstay at the VFW, alternating with a Latin jazz outfit and a blues band, and his gospel and R&B touches have begun to expand the repertoire at the Vee beyond jazz classics.
"Sometimes, when you're playing at a place, the music is secondary to the food and whatever else is going on," Murray says after his set. "But here, people come to hear the music. That creates an atmosphere of energy. It drives the players. It makes you play harder because you want to entertain them.
"You want to fulfill that music need that they have."
And Murray, from his musical pulpit, seems to have the healing touch with his Hammond B3.
But not everyone's a disciple.
Just weeks ago, jazz night at Virgil Bell felt like a house party thrown every Sunday by two people with a passion for local music -- Irvin Tate and Carolyn Clark. They stood at the entrance, welcoming the crowd inside like they were motioning people into a living room.
Three years earlier, Tate and Clark had started their partnership with jazz nights held at the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center near Fifth Street and Grant. The choice of location -- the site of the former Phoenix Colored School during the city's segregated period -- wasn't accidental.
"It was just part of the norm. We knew their place, and we knew ours," says Tate, 57, remembering what it was like living in a pre-integration Phoenix. Standing in front of the Carver Museum, Tate points out a building near America West Arena that housed a Woolworth's with a lunch counter, a whites-only establishment that was just blocks from his boyhood home.
"You could go in and order food anytime you wanted. But you couldn't sit at the counter. Oh, no."
Tate's father owned Bob Tate's Rose Room, the first steak house and after-hours jazz club in town, and it was known as much for its thick cuts of beef as its all-night jam sessions. "This was when steaks was like this," he says, spreading his thumb and index finger about two inches apart, "none of this sissy stuff."
After playing white clubs, black musicians often came to the Rose Room for jazz odysseys lasting well into the night, Tate remembers. "Cab Calloway played 'til the sun came up," he says.
And jazz concerts also went on at the Carver School, he says. Louis Armstrong performed on the auditorium stage. So did Art and Addison Farmer, both Carver school alums who would later become world-renowned jazz musicians. They attended the school when black students -- like Tate himself -- weren't welcome at white schools north of the tracks.
After the U.S. Supreme Court's 1954 decision, Brown v. Board of Education, however, Carver was closed permanently. For decades the Phoenix Union High School District used the building for storage, and then in 1996 the school's doors were reopened as a museum and cultural center to preserve the state's black history.
And what better way to preserve it, Tate thought, than to revive the music of those glory days. Tate teamed up with Carolyn Clark, a jazz fan who had also grown up in segregated Phoenix, and began putting on music shows at the museum.
Clark, 62, hands over a business card that identifies her as "The Jazz Lady." By the age of 11, she says, she had fallen in love with the genre. A cousin fed her curiosity with Morgana King and Charlie Parker records and other artists of the day. "People were impressed that at that age I knew that many different artists' names," she says. "I loved it."
After a year of gradual success at the museum, the building was closed for repairs. Looking for another venue, Clark spotted the VFW hall one day while driving by. Finding that it was nearly empty on Sunday nights, she persuaded the hall's management to allow their burgeoning jazz preservation society to move to Virgil Bell.
To make the circle complete, they brought in as the club's regular act someone who got his first taste of jazz at the old Rose Room.
"I was overwhelmed because it was such a mixed crowd," drummer Dave Cook remembers about the audience at Bob Tate's Rose Room in 1959, where whites often outnumbered blacks. "That's where I met all these other musicians. We used to play, man, from like 9 or 10 o'clock at night until 4 or 5 the next morning, when the sun came up," says the nearly legendary local jazzman. "That's where I met Charles Lewis and Keith Greko, Dave Campbell. All kinds of cats were coming down there because it was the place to play." Cook would go on to play with Lewis and Greko, both pianists, and Campbell, a bassist, around town, including the Playboy Club in the 1960s and 1970s, where Cook played for and met such luminaries as Hugh Hefner and John Wayne.
With more than 40 years as part of the Valley's jazz scene, the Cook moniker is like a brand name in Phoenix metropolitan jazz circles. When Dom Moio, a Valley drum teacher, moved here 15 years ago and asked around about local jazz, everyone directed him to Cook, he says. "Dave Cook is like an institution in Phoenix," Moio says. "He's always hosted a jam session where young people can go play. And that's a great thing."
Dressed in a gray suit, red dress shirt and black fedora, Cook speaks slowly and with a slightly muffled tone, as if each word was a revelation. He seems to know every great jazz artist in America. He can spit out a long list of more famous and less famous jazz musicians, many from the Valley and others not, who he's seen perform or performed with, but it takes him some time to recall them all. His thin, graying mustache scrunches up and his sapphire eyes glaze over before he makes an inventory. Among the list -- too many to write down -- he includes Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Margo Reed, Art Farmer and Ike Cole, Nat "King" Cole's brother.
Cook played the Virgil Bell VFW when it had a previous jazz night run, from 1988 to 1994. And he was Tate and Clark's choice when the new Sunday night series started in May 2001.
And, like always, he continued his well-known practice of bringing along young talent to jam along with his trio. Sometimes, so many musicians would show up at the VFW to join in with Cook, songs would last 15 to 20 minutes so that all of the solos could be packed in. But Cook didn't mind -- it was just part of his democratic, traditional approach to jazz.
The growing success of the VFW nights wasn't just a musical project for him, Cook admits. "I was trying to get the people who come to the VFW and the people who are members of the VFW post to acknowledge that this [was their] contribution to the [black] community. That by doing this [they were] contributing to the musical black experience."
For Tate and Cook, the tasty combination of music and soul food was nourishment for more than the soul. Both of them perceived it as a mission that benefited the black community in a part of Phoenix that most people have forgotten.
That was then. Today, however, Cook's banished, Tate's disaffected, and the VFW is evolving and surviving without them.
After 86 weeks of Dave Cook's jam sessions, Carolyn Clark had simply had enough. She says she'd received complaints from customers that Cook's playlist was just too static -- standards had become just that, too standard -- and the crowd at the VFW wanted a change-up. So she axed the legendary drummer.
Cook responded by calling her up and cursing at her, a move which he admits may have been foolish. Clark, in turn, wasn't happy with Tate, who was supposed to have given Cook two weeks' notice about the change, something he hadn't done.
"Dave Cook has done a lot for us. He's done a lot for the VFW and for lots of artists. He's a legend," Clark says amiably. "But we're changing venues to keep [the music] fresh."
Vanessa Adams, a longtime VFW patron and Scottsdale hair consultant, agrees that it was time for more variety. She acknowledged that Cook kept things interesting with sit-ins and new talent, but, she says, "it's good to hear other musicians. He was getting a little tired."
Cook still steams over the rejection, and blames Clark for not having the bona fides to wear the nickname The Jazz Lady. "Really, she don't know shit," he says. "Even if we played the same tunes four times in a row, four Sundays in a row, we have different people coming in that play tunes differently. See, she has no concept of creativity or stuff like that." It was he, Cook adds, who had the contacts that made possible tribute nights dedicated to Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald and Tito Puente -- a standing room only night.
"She . . . thought she didn't need me to run anything. I didn't mind that. What I did mind is that I referred about a hundred musicians to her that she didn't even know. She would never have met them if it hadn't been for me," Cook complains.
But Clark disagrees, saying that she's employed mostly people that Cook never introduced to her. And besides, she points out, she's the promoter and the one ultimately responsible for paying the band, even when the small cover charge doesn't cover costs. Often, she says, she's had to pay musicians out of her own pocket. In the end, she asserts, she only wants what Cook wants -- to preserve Arizona's black musical heritage. "We're trying to keep the music alive," she says, "to keep jazz alive."
It might be some time before Cook's allowed to be a part of that project again, says Clark's husband Tony. With his rose sunglasses, slick hair, khakis and Hawaiian shirt decked with martinis and open to reveal some chest hair, Tony Clark looks like he just stepped out of an episode of Miami Vice. The public relations arm of VFW jazz night, Tony Clark sends out e-mails to about 250 regulars advertising each week's show.
Cook, he says, might be allowed to return to Virgil Bell, but "he'd probably have to apologize to [my wife] first for cussing her out."
In the meantime, Cook is playing at Club Central, at the old Park Central Mall, trying to get a rival scene going on Sunday nights.
Irvin Tate makes only the shortest of appearances at the VFW scene he helped create, leaving soon after the show begins. "Carolyn's taking over," he says, matter-of-factly. He's severed his partnership with Clark, and now there's an empty spot where Tate and his camcorder on a tripod took up position and taped the jazz sessions every week. Tate has begun helping promote Cook's nights at Club Central.
"I used to like [the VFW], but I don't like it anymore because Dave's not there," says Adam Clark (no relation to Carolyn), a 25-year-old Tempe drummer who sat in with the Cook trio in the past. "The only reason I went was to go hang with Dave." Five years ago, Clark met Cook when his music teacher introduced him to the jazz veteran, and Cook allowed the newcomer to sit in on a jam, sight unseen. Since then, Cook has brought Clark to his larger circle of friends. "We hang out every once in a while and just kick it at each other's houses, you know, and have a drink maybe and listen to some old records. . . . If Dave Cook's playing out, you want to go check it. It's going to be him and it's going to be a whole bunch of other people, too. It's like a community of musicians," Clark says. "He's the shit, man. I love that guy."
Cook hopes his reputation will be enough to pull the VFW regulars away to his new gig. So far, his audiences are small but, says a bartender at Club Central, growing.
Although he's quick to wish Clark success running the VFW night, Cook offers a cryptic coda to his assessment of the affair: "It's like Dizzy Gillespie used to say: It'll all come out in the wash,'" he says.
Joe Lester usually brings dates with him to the VFW, but on this June night he's ordering drinks for one. With his hair slicked back and salted with gray, his Hawaiian shirt, white shorts and loafers, Lester looks like he should be sailing or strolling a time-share beach. Instead, he's perched at the bar, one foot crossed over the other, wagging to the music.
Clearly, he's enjoying himself tonight, just like every Sunday here, he says. Since January, he adds, when a musician at the Rhythm Room told him about the VFW, each jazz night has been better than the last.
"This is unique, very unique," Lester says, comparing the VFW to jazz clubs in Chicago, where the 61-year-old man was a firefighter before he retired and moved to Scottsdale. But with fewer jam session sit-ins and a growing frequency of Marvin Gaye tunes, blues songs and other musical departures from traditional swing and bebop coming from the house's alternating groups, the VFW has lost some of the hard-core jazz flavor that drew Lester there in the first place.
And yet, for him, it's still a "real jazz club," complete with an intimate, nothing fancy crowd, home-style soul food and, of course, black music. And there's an added bonus after the night's over. "When I go home, my clothes smell of cooking oil and smoke," he says.
Jason Wilson, meanwhile, the ASU student who stumbled onto the scene and then clued in a small group of other college invaders, appears nervous when he realizes that a newspaper story on Virgil Bell is imminent. Like an explorer who has discovered an unspoiled paradise, he dreads what will happen if word about the VFW gets out.
"I don't want it to be a club kind of thing where you just get a bunch of people, trendy people, down there thinking that, Oh, this is cool, the jazz and the blues, man. Let's go hang out,'" he says. "That would piss me off."
But word already seems to be getting out. A month ago, the VFW was packed with one of its largest crowds ever, many of them newcomers to the scene.
Wilson says the room was filled with an energy he hasn't experienced since Dave Cook left. "There weren't very many people doing much of anything in the beginning, like the first half-hour or 45 minutes," he says. "But I tell you what, man, around eight o'clock, I don't know what happened, but [the band] must have realized that we need to start playing our music.'" And that's when the crowd got into it, he says. "You had people dancing, you had people clapping their hands, and they were doing the old classic yelling thing . . . someone would solo and everyone would be like, Yeah! Woo!'"
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Last summer, Wilson says, the audience responded in much the same way to the improvisations coming from Dave Cook's trio and his many guest musicians, filling the dance floor, egging on the soloists and clapping along. But after Cook left, it just wasn't the same, Wilson complains.
"That's how it was every Sunday night -- the energy, I mean." But now, he says, that feeling is back. "It was like someone took a soda pop can and shook it 'til it exploded."
Most of the night, the dance floor was packed with people moving to a mix of blues, Motown and soul.
It wasn't old-school jazz, but few seemed to care. Having survived its rancorous shakeup, Virgil Bell seems to be hopping.