Nashville’s appeal as a destination for topflight jazz and blues performers may never have been higher than it was in 2019. From giants like Ahmad Jamal and Herbie Hancock to established younger talents like James Carter and Gerald Clayton, there was no shortage of great national jazz talent coming to town. The same was true of blues stalwarts, from elder statesman Buddy Guy, who made his annual Ryman appearance, to the exciting youngster Christone “Kingfish” Ingram and the no-less-remarkable Gary Clark Jr.
The arts nonprofit FMRL, founded by longtime Nashville promoter Chris Davis, continually presents national and international avant-garde and experimental musicians, some of whom use jazz in their work — like Jamal R. Moore or the trio of Larry Ochs, Nels Cline and Gerald Cleaver, two acts that played here this year. FMRL also helps build a local audience for regional and local musicians. Several veteran R&B and soul artists made Music City stops this year too, among them Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, funk icon George Clinton, and the great singer and songwriter Valerie Simpson.
There continues to be an array of options for fans whose tastes aren’t strictly confined to pop, rock, country or Americana. Beyond the jazz shows you’d expect at Rudy’s Jazz Room and the Nashville Jazz Workshop (and in the Schermerhorn’s ongoing jazz series), there were often great jazz, blues or soul shows at City Winery and Marathon Music Works. Several such shows came to venues that don’t routinely feature them, like the Ryman, Exit/In and 3rd and Lindsley. While celebrating its 19th anniversary, the Nashville Jazz Workshop prepared for a move to Buchanan Street in the new year. The remodeled church facility will provide more space for their vital classes and music curriculum, as well as their regular concerts.
The city’s jazz talent continued to be well-represented elsewhere, with The Beegie Adair Trio making what’s become its annual appearance at Carnegie Hall — something you probably would not have imagined 10 years ago. Something else you might not have expected: The National Museum of African American Music, set to open on Lower Broadway in the summer. There’s already loads of buzz regarding this museum, and given Nashville’s legacy in jazz and blues (as well as gospel, R&B and soul), its opening looks to be the next important step in the local history of these musical traditions getting the attention it deserves.
It continues to take concerted effort to keep music that isn’t mainstream alive in an era when only a tiny fraction of this nation’s cultural output gets wide exposure. The Tennessee Jazz and Blues Society’s Great Albums Concert Series, the blues and R&B jams at Carol Ann’s Home Cooking Cafe, WFSK-FM’s 24/7 jazz programming, and Greg Pogue’s Nashville Jazz show on Acme Radio all continue to do this vital work to maintain some diversity on our cultural landscape.
The array of wonderful jazz, blues and R&B musicians living in our area is astonishing. When people like George Benson or Buddy Guy select local studios and artists to produce and play on their LPs, it’s a reflection of the city’s immense talent pool. Complaints are lodged year in and year out regarding what isn’t available or doesn’t happen here for jazz and blues artists. But those who’ve been around town a while can attest that things have improved a great deal in recent years, and the future looks even brighter.