Joel Goldenthal is holding court in an empty room. The executive director of The Nash jazz club is talking about his favorite music. He spiels and yarn-spins with an ease that would put most storytellers to shame. Goldenthal gestures to the doors of the club like a conductor telling a musician it’s her turn to chime in.
“Everything we’ve done has been the direct result of somebody walking in our door, calling us up, or emailing us and saying, ‘Hey, I think there’s a need for this,’” Goldenthal says. “I feel like I’m directing traffic half the time.”
Though the club can be bustling on weekends, it’s empty on this October afternoon.
Located on the corner of First and Roosevelt streets, The Nash immediately stands out, thanks to its purple exterior and a neon sign spelling the club’s name out in a style that looks like an autograph on a Patrick Nagel print.
It might be surprising that one of the country’s most respected jazz clubs is next-door neighbors with Carly’s Bistro and the now-defunct Firehouse Gallery, but there it is. Right at ground zero for the First Friday art walk madness, the club introduces itself with live jazz pouring from its open doors.
It’s a small cozy space that can fit between 80 and 115 people. A bar stands by the entrance, leading to the main room where a constellation of tables surrounds a floor-level stage. Paintings of jazz legends and photographs of important moments in Arizona jazz history dot the walls. A drum kit stands in the middle of the stage, unmanned. There are tables so close to the drums that a bead of sweat could easily sail off a drummer’s forehead and spike someone’s wine.
“Jazz is an intimate art form,” he says, sipping from a bottle of water. “Seeing it in an intimate club like this and seeing jazz in a concert hall, those are two very different experiences.” If The Nash were to pull up stakes and settle somewhere else, he admits, he wouldn’t want the venue to be any bigger.
Not that moving is on Goldenthal’s mind. The Nash has been going strong for five years on Roosevelt Row. There’s live music happening every week at the club, and that keeps the place hopping.
Friday nights are for experimental and avant-garde jazz. Saturday nights feature more traditional pop fare. Sundays are the club’s busy open jam sessions. Sometimes the club opens on weeknights for collaborative events that mix jazz audiences with spoken word or comedy crowds.
The Nash is an offshoot of Jazz in AZ, a local organization dedicated to promoting jazz in the desert. Goldenthal is the executive director of both The Nash and Jazz in AZ. He doesn’t just love jazz music; he also plays it.
Goldenthal moved to the Valley in 1972. Playing jazz piano at the Boojum Tree Lounge at the Doubletree Inn on Second Avenue and Osborn Road, Goldenthal was part of one of Arizona’s great jazz hubs. “All the best musicians from coast to coast would play the Boojum Tree as they passed through Phoenix,” he says.
In 2012, he helped open The Nash, after Jazz in AZ was approached with the idea of opening a club in downtown Phoenix by Herbert Ely.
“He’s the gentleman who wrote the civil rights legislation in 1963 for the state of Arizona,” Goldenthal says of Ely. “He’s also very passionate about jazz and sees it as a part of the civil rights movement, as an expression of freedom.”
Ely wanted a new a jazz venue where young musicians would have a place to play and enjoy the artform.
Five years later, The Nash has already made an impression on the national scene.
Jazz publication Downbeat Magazine has, on several occasions, hailed The Nash as one of the best jazz clubs in the country. The club’s high profile has brought it into the Jazz Forward Coalition and the Doris Duke Foundation’s Jazz Hubs project, making it part of a network of national cities (along with Seattle, Portland, Washington D.C., and Pittsburgh) on the cutting edge of audience development, educational initiatives, and programming.
That reputation in the everybody-knows-everybody jazz community has also led the venue to landing impressive national acts.
“When we opened this place, the first note that was played here was by Wynton Marsalis,” Goldenthal says with wonder. “He drove pro bono from New York City to open the venue for us.”
A big reason for the venue’s prominence in the national jazz scene is the inspiration behind its name: Lewis Nash.
“The same night I had that conversation with Herb Ely, I called him up and said, ‘We’ve got to connect this venue to Lewis Nash,’” Goldenthal says.
A south Phoenix native, the 58-year old Nash is one of the most in-demand jazz drummers in the world. Since his debut in the early ’80s, he’s played alongside Dizzy Gillepsie, Kenny Barron, Toshiko Akiyoshi, McCoy Tyner, Clark Terry, and a bevy of other jazz artists. A New York resident since 1981, he’s recently returned to the Valley after joining the ASU School of Music faculty as a professor of practice in jazz.
Jazz in AZ connected with the acclaimed drummer in 2012 to share plans for opening a club. Since then, Nash has done more than simply lend his name to the venue — he also helps the club book national acts, thanks to his extensive connections from years of touring. According to Goldenthal, Nash’s involvement with the club has put them on the radar of jazz legends across the country.
“He’s the best link to the traditions of jazz,” Goldenthal says. “He’s played with and recorded with virtually every jazz legend alive. He’s their first choice. He’s been personally curating these artists for us ... they’re the shoulders on which this music has been built.”
But it takes more than a music celebrity co-sign to keep a jazz club running. The Nash has been able to endure for long as it has because of its ability to connect with the community.
“The community colleges and the art high schools all do their season performances here,” Goldenthal says. Jazz instructors from Arizona Sate University, Scottsdale Community College, and other institutions are also involved with the venue’s educational efforts, helping to bring in a wide array of students and guest artists to The Nash. Staying relevant with younger generations and encouraging them to enjoy jazz as “their” music is a cornerstone of The Nash’s ethos.
“That’s the paradigm shift we wanted to see — that these kids didn’t feel like they were going to their parent’s or their grandparent’s jazz club.”
Goldenthal attributes the club’s ability to draw younger crowds to how they built the place: by asking young jazz fans what they wanted.
Because of that community-oriented feedback, the club has begun cross-pollinating with other performance groups. The club hosts monthly “Jazz & Jokes” comedy nights where stand-up comedians collaborate with a live jazz band. There are monthly jazz and poetry events (a jazz/poetry tribute to Donny Hathaway was slated for October 26). An open jam session happens every Sunday, when players of any skill level can jam with a professional trio.
“You get these young musicians who come out and get their ass kicked in front of a live audience,” Goldenthal says with a smile. “It’s really the most stimulating experience — you can stay in the practice room or on campus, you can woodshed all you like, but it’s a whole different thing playing with seasoned musicians and being involved in the communication and respect that jazz embodies.”
While Goldenthal has been involved with The Nash since the beginning, he emphasizes that running the club is a group effort.
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He’s quick to point out the key contributions of managing director Kate Hastings, Jeff Libman, Lewis Nash, and Herb Ely. True to the jazz ethic that the ensemble is more important than any individual player, Goldenthal credits this group and volunteers for The Nash’s continuing success.
But all that group effort would be moot without an audience. Curious onlookers float in and out of the club on First Fridays, and some of them keep coming back. It’s because of those regulars that Goldenthal sees a place for jazz in Arizona’s art scene.
“If this doesn’t resound with you, if the importance of this music — the joy of it, the expression, the creativity, and the freedom ... you’re not gonna last here,” he says. “But if you do get it, you’ve found a home.”
The Nash closes out a month of five-year anniversary events with Regina Carter’s tribute to Ella Fitzgerald at the Musical Instrument Museum on Friday, October 27, in Scottsdale. For more programming details, see thenash.org.