April is Jazz Appreciation Month and Virginia’s Blue Ridge has its fair share of connections to the All-American art form. In fact, if you consider the most identifiable features of jazz, improvisation and call & response, traditional bluegrass showcases a great deal of similarities.
Jazz was birthed from a grim period in American history. Beginning in the early 17th century, the Atlantic slave trade brought hundreds of thousands of African slaves to North America, and with them came musical traditions that focused on rhythmic percussions, call & response, and improvisation.
Following the abolishment of slavery in 1865, New Orleans quickly became the center for an emerging musical style called “Ragtime.” By the beginning of the 20th century, African-American musical traditions mixed with rags, marches, blues and many other styles from a number of diverse communities melded together to create the jazz sound we recognize today.
The earliest jazz recordings in 1917 and beyond introduced the emerging musical style to the broader United States. By the 1920s, you had pioneers like Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton leading jazz into the future and introducing the art form to a young generation of soon-to-be jazz icons such as Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Miles Davis, John Coltrane and others.
Like the rest of the nation, Virginia’s Blue Ridge latched on to the emerging American art form and the City of Roanoke saw its fair share of touring jazz musicians passing through the region and leaving a lasting impression on some of our region’s finest performers.
Modern day jazz artists, such as celebrated vocalists Rene Marie and Jane Powell, have called Virginia’s Blue Ridge home. However, arguably Roanoke’s most iconic jazz musician was pianist and organist Don Pullen.
Born on Christmas day 1941, Pullen grew up in the historic Gainsboro neighborhood and attended Roanoke’s Lucy Addison High School. Influenced heavily by his jazz musician cousin Clyde “Fats” Wright, Pullen built on his early childhood experience playing church piano to develop his own truly unique percussive style of jazz piano. Pullen played with a number of jazz greats throughout his career, including a stint with famed bassist Charles Mingus in the 1970s. The Roanoke pianist’s avant-garde style was well received in Europe, where Pullen toured extensively. Pullen continued to tour and play throughout the world, until his death in 1995.
In a recent tribute, Jefferson Center, a Roanoke non-profit arts and cultural center, honored the late jazz icon with a concert featuring some of today’s most well-known and talented jazz artists, including the Artistic Director for Jazz at The Kennedy Center, Jason Moran, on piano. Immediately following the tribute concert, Jefferson Center organized the Don Pullen Scholarship to support young jazz musicians in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
Jefferson Center continues to be one of the region’s more prominent presenters and supporters of great jazz in the community, having featured a number of well-known performers on its Shaftman Performance Hall stage, including Wynton Marsalis, Esperanza Spalding, Dr. Lonnie Smith, Gregory Porter, Chick Corea and more. In addition to its featured Jazz Series and more intimate Jazz Club, the non-profit focuses on its mission to support the next generation of musicians through programs like Music Lab. The after-school program is a unique model of experiential learning in music business, technology, and performance offered to young musicians in Virginia’s Blue Ridge and includes a number of internal programs including the Summer Jazz Institute, designed to teach students the history and performance style of America’s art form.
Jefferson Center is one of a handful of ideal venues for live music featuring jazz performances in Virginia’s Blue Ridge. Restaurants such as Blue 5 and Martin’s often feature jazz, blues and various other instrumental genres.
Jazz Appreciation Month was created in 2002 by the National Museum of American History to stimulate and encourage people of all ages to participate in jazz and study America’s art form. This April, saxophonist, composer and arranger Benny Carter is the featured artist. Born in 1907, Carter’s career spanned nearly the entire evolution of what we recognize as jazz today.
Birthed during a tumultuous period in American history, jazz has found a way to connect generations of diverse communities on a level that no other medium could. The unique musical style continues to do so throughout the nation, around the world, and right here in Virginia’s Blue Ridge.
For more live music in the region, be sure to check out our Music section, subscribe to our Spotify playlist, and don’t forget to sign-up for our monthly e-newsletter to get more information about Virginia’s Blue Ridge!