As a musician, Steve Douglas plays all across Arizona. So when he says there’s a shortage of jazz statewide, it's because he's seen it firsthand.
"Tony Frank is the jazz scene in Tucson. When he doesn’t play, there’s no jazz," Douglas says. Meanwhile, Chino Valley has "maybe one night" of weekly jazz, while Prescott’s El Gato Azul runs occasional jazz evenings.
That’s why Douglas, alongside dozens of other musicians and volunteers, are so deeply invested in Phoenix’s The Nash, even helping renovate the building at Roosevelt Row prior to its April 2012 opening. In the seven years since, the club, named after famed Phoenician drummer Lewis Nash, has put on hundreds of shows, featuring established acts and up-and-comers alike.
During a show in mid-June from Douglas’ "hot club" band ZAZU, the space, resembling a small, slightly sterile cafe, was filled with 80 or so attendees of varying ages. That proximity reflects jazz's diverse, tight-knit community, driving the sense that everyone’s assembled to further the scene.
"Nobody is more than 40 feet from the from the stage," says Joel Goldenthal, executive director of Jazz in AZ, which operates the club. "Jazz is a very intimate art form. There's a lot of give and take between audience or musician. I go to a bigger venue and I'm just disappointed."
That dynamic also furthers the notion that everyone's participating in this obscure ritual. But Goldenthal and co. don't see their efforts as combating jazz's great undoing — rather, jazz has always assumed a slightly underdog position in culture.
"The challenges that we have in Arizona are not unique," he says. "Jazz is being challenged across the country. But having said that, there are always people that are going to find their way into this art form and then become musicians and fans."
Douglas echoes similar sentiments, adding, "Historically, jazz has always comprised maybe 2 percent of all album sales. So getting 100 people to attend is good. We’ll never kill the world with attendance, so we deliver really good jazz and keep fans happy."
That very dynamic is why The Nash’s educational component is so essential. As Goldenthal explains, "I like to say that we incubate them on the side of the building, and then they're on stage with us."
But that component also presents unique challenges, like balancing exposure and then following up with limited resources. To address that, The Nash prides itself on engaging people of all ages, with events like Hot Dogs and Jazz for kids and collaborative sessions for adult players from 20 to 85 years old.
"It's hard to quantify the impact of that," Goldenthal says. "I always like to say, you know, if we just spark the next Chick Corea or Ella Fitzgerald, we've done really, really well."
Douglas, meanwhile, thinks it’s far easier to measure the education arm's effectiveness.
"That’s what allows Joel to run around and ask people to write checks, what makes people happy to throw money at the source," he says. "It’s necessary to have a jazz club."
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That’s ultimately why Goldenthal believes a great jazz club is always going to "have its place," with the aim to engage audiences "so that it doesn't become a music museum."
As such, Goldenthal wants to "grow with the community." This is why, despite discussions of a possible relocation, he's inclined to stay in Roosevelt Row, even with "the potential to be successful elsewhere," including added space for educational programming. It might not be glamorous, or even particularly fast, but The Nash's leadership are hedging their bets that Phoenix is a jazz town after all.
"I believe that Roosevelt Row will provide the critical mass of people and venues to create a big city energy, and The Nash needs to be at its core," Goldenthal says.
The Nash. 110 East Roosevelt Street; 602-795-0464; thenash.org.