Lori Mechem doesn’t view herself as a jazz pioneer. But as far as the local music community goes, there’s no doubt she has done some pioneering work. After three years of preparation, she and husband Roger Spencer have finally opened Nashville’s first school for jazz musicians and jazz enthusiasts.
The Nashville Jazz Institute, which opened its doors on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Lafayette Street just a few months ago, started its second slate of six-week classes April 6. The course offerings include beginning jazz improvisation, a comprehensive history of jazz taught by Spencer, intro to jazz theory with noted Nashville musician Bruce Dudley, and jazz improvisation for drum set with Tom Giampietro.
“I’ve had so many people call me since we opened and say, ‘Thanks, this is something we’ve needed for so long,’ ” Mechem says. She also notes that things have been extremely hectic since the school started. “This has been a dream of ours for so long, but we weren’t sure that there would be support in the marketplace. The initial reaction has been both overwhelming and gratifying.”
Ever since she moved here a decade ago, Mechem has rejected conventional notions about Nashville and jazz. This is due, in no small part, to her rich musical upbringing. Her father, mother, and two brothers are all professional instrumentalists, and Mechem herself started gigging at age 13, when she played drums in her father’s big band. An Anderson, Ind., native who graduated with a jazz degree from Ball State, she got her first post-collegiate professional job as musical director for an Indianapolis theater group.
From there, she headed west for a time, hoping to find success in the world of film and show business. It was in California that she met her future husband Roger, also a transplanted Indiana musician. After a few years, the duo decided to relocate to Nashville, motivated not only by acts of nature like the 1987 Whittier earthquake, but also by a desire to move to a place where they’d feel more welcome.
Over the years, Mechem has amassed some impressive credentials as a musician, having worked with such storied names as Dizzy Gillespie, Jimmy Smith, Eydie Gorme, and the McGuire Sisters; for a time in 1988, she also held a regular gig at the now defunct Jazzy Johnny’s nightclub, a place she remembers as “wonderful in terms of audience and ambiance, not so great in some other ways.”
Spencer, a bassist, boasts equally extensive and eye-opening credits; a versatile stylist who plays traditional acoustic bass, four- and five-string electric, and a keyboard synth model, he has performed behind vocalists Tony Bennett, Mel Torme, Sammy Davis Jr., and R&B legend Ruth Brown; he has also appeared in bands led by Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis, Buddy DeFranco, Kenny Burrell, and Bill Perkins.
As head of the new Jazz Institute, Mechem comes by her academic background after several years of teaching at Belmont University, where she continues to work as an instructor. As if that weren’t enough, she also continues to stay active as a working musician. Her band Ritmos Picantes, which blends jazz with Afro-Brazilian and Afro-Latin influences, issued a first-rate release, Welcome to Brazil, last year. The date boasts nine Mechem compositions, along with some solid examples of the band’s skillful abilities: The players manage to navigate the smooth, often sensual Brazilian sound without sacrificing their jazz edge or harmonic facility.
Besides Mechem on piano and keyboards, the group includes saxophonist and flutist Denis Solee, rhythm guitarist Pete Huttlinger, drummer Chris Brown, percussionist Dann Sherrill, bassist Spencer, and guest performers Mark Christian on guitar, and Russ May and Farrell Morris on percussion. The date was recorded at Belmont and earned a nomination for Best Jazz Album at the 1998 Nashville Music Awards.
Mechem and Spencer also played recently at Austin Peay’s jazz festival, but for now they’re focused on building the Institute. Mechem has tabbed some of the city’s finest players to serve as instructors and professors; Jeff Coffin, Bruce and Sandra Dudley, Jeff Steinberg, Charles Dungee, and Beegie Adair are all providing valuable training and supervision. Mechem also has far-reaching plans for the Institute. She’d eventually like to see the school build an archive with recordings that span the music’s history, and she’s currently laying plans for a weekend “jazz coffeehouse” seriesregular jam sessions that would be reminiscent of the confabs at Minton’s in the ’40s that led to the birth of bebop. Eventually, Mechem would like to expand coursework to include other topics such as production, arranging, and composition.
For now, though, she’s happy just to provide an outlet for the city’s jazz enthusiasts. “There’s so much jazz talent here in Nashville that people don’t know about,” she observes, “and there’s much more interest in the music than you would think from the city’s reputation. I think that the Jazz Institute can help play a part in elevating awareness and appreciation not just for jazz, but for the city’s jazz musicians. We have people here who have played with the top names in the business, and only a handful of people know about them.
“We also have people here who can potentially become superstars, but they need experience and training.” And that’s where the Nashville Jazz Institute comes in. But, just as important, Mechem notes, the school is “a place to come and just enjoy and learn about the music.”
For information about classes at the Nashville Jazz Institute, call 313-9000 or 313-8877.
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