The music scene doesn't happen on its own. What we see on the surface is the result of passionate people behind the scenes, writing, creating, organizing, promoting, and working tirelessly to bring music to the venues, bars, and houses of Metro Phoenix. We will look at 25 here, some familiar, some new . Be sure to check out our 100 Tastemakers and 100 Creatives as well.
Jazz isn't easy.
Whether you're learning it, performing it, writing about it, or promoting it, the quintessential American art presents myriad challenges. But one person in Phoenix is up for that effort, and has given jazz a prime-time slot in the Phoenix music scene, and that person is KJZZ's music director Blaise Lantana.
Lantana hosts Classic Jazz on the city's local NPR member station on weekdays from 8 to 11 p.m. That's three straight hours of Lantana's hand-selected blend of legends and contemporary artists, with the occasional representative of the local scene thrown in for good measure. As such, she is a tireless advocate for a musical genre that is as demanding of listeners as it is rewarding.
"Fall in love with jazz, and it will ruin you for everything else," she says.
Lantana is also a performer herself. She learned piano at a young age, and she showed a knack for improvisation at an early age that would soon guide her to jazz, even as her piano teachers were perplexed by the way she rewrote Mozart on the fly. It was Louis Armstrong, then finally Bessie Smith and Billie Holiday, that would enchant and lure her into the jazz world. She soon became a performing singer in Texas, but when the oil market crashed in the '80s, she found the well of paying gigs running dry. She found work at a Corpus Christi radio station, and soon had hosted everything from a Latin music radio show to Morning Edition. She moved to the Valley in 1994, and became KJZZ's music director, focusing on jazz, the following year.
Having a full-time gig in radio hasn't stopped Lantana from pursuing her own creative endeavors. She still writes music and performs regularly around the Valley. You can catch her at Opa Life Greek Cafe in Tempe on September 9 and with a five-piece band at the Desert Botanical Garden on November 11.
What singers do you admire? You can't beat Ella [Fitzgerald], who could do it all: improvise bebop, swing, beautiful tone, nothing like it. Of course, I love Billie Holiday's haunting sound, and for today's young singers, I like the delicate touch of Melody Gardot. I am in awe of the pitch control, power, and imagination of Dianne Reeves, and Diana Krall has that low, smoky sound that pulls you in.
What type of music are you into that people might find surprising? I am a songwriter and a poet, so I love Jackson Browne, Steve Earl, Lyle Lovett. And I love the emotion of opera, but I say opera is like baseball and sex: It's better in person.
What makes a good song? Funny, if I knew that, I'd be a famous songwriter. What I like is a melody that lingers, and some harmonic dimension beyond a simple pop structure. I love jazz because the band is so integrated. In a good jazz band, everyone is listening to one another; it is never stagnant, the rhythm is changing subtly through the song, unlike rock, which lives on that steady beat. Fall in love with jazz, and it will ruin you for everything else.
What do you think the music scene needs most? The same as always. More venues, better pay for the musicians. It would be nice to have a jazz festival in Phoenix that actually plays jazz.
Who do you admire most in the music scene? I love the people who make it happen, what Joel Robin and Herb Eli at the Nash are doing to keep jazz in the forefront is a treat for us and a lot of work for them. ... Woody Wilson at [Tempe Center for the Arts] has a great jazz series he puts together. ... Doc Ox is keeping local jazz and blues musicians working at Opa. ... Pete Gitlin, a local guitarist, has been hosting a jazz jam every Thursday night at the Pita Jungle in Chandler for years. ... These people make it possible for all of us to play, and to play together and learn from one another.
What's the best concert you've ever seen in Phoenix? Singer Kurt Elling at the [Musical Instrument Museum]. I couldn't even talk after I heard him. He is a jazz monster, and his presence live is riveting.
The 2016 Noisemakers so far:
25. Matty Steinkamp
24. Blaise Lantana