April 14 2010 12:00 AM

Pianist brings a swirl of styles to Creole Gallery



In Jeff Haas’s latest publicity shot, it looks as if galaxies are merging inside his cranium. This is not a man who breezes through life.

Then again, there’s nothing funny about peace, love and understanding.

Haas’s searching, swinging jazz, swirled with ethnic spice and classical grandeur, is meant to shatter musical walls. Haas gave the Creole Gallery three of its most memorable nights of the last decade. This Friday, the Traverse City pianist-composer will come back for the first time in three years, with a new sextet and a renewed mission.

Healing through music, a Haas specialty, will be top priority. Friday’s concert also marks the return of Meegan Holland, the booking agent and life partner of Creole owner Robert Busby during the Creole’s musical heyday. Busby was killed in February 2007, not long after Haas last played the Creole.

Haas has played hundreds of halls, clubs, schools and synagogues, but he prizes his gigs at the Creole for that elusive musical high “when the basket looks 10 feet wide and you can’t miss.”

“Usually, they might last a moment, or a tune or two, but at the Creole they pretty much lasted the whole night,” he said. “Every time it’s been magical, and that started with Robert and Meegan.”

Haas will premiere a tune in Busby’s honor Friday. “He’d take us upstairs for a home-cooked meal, leave us alone to rehearse,” Haas recalled. “It was a level of respect and generosity for the music that creates those magical nights.”

Confluence is the common theme of Haas’ many endeavors. “Jazz Connections,” Haas’ radio show on Interlochen Public Radio, explores the ties between jazz and rock, R&B and classical music.

The show is one way for Haas to come to terms with the towering legacy of his father, longtime classical music radio host Karl Haas, who died in 2005..

“I spend 20 hours a week putting one show together,” Haas marveled. “Dad did one every day.”

“Adventures in Good Music” left Haas the elder with no time for jazz, but Jeff spends much of his life harmonizing the classical and jazz worlds. He’s just recorded “The Age of Confluence,” a 65-minute suite for jazz combo and string quartet, along with a solo piano disc and a full-length film score.

Most of all, Haas values the work he’s doing in hundreds of grade schools throughout the state — more than 600 workshops in 500 schools by now.

The workshops started in 1994 as a way to rehearse his working combos. But as Haas toured the state, from inner city Detroit to Michigan’s north country, he was stunned by the state’s cultural and physical segregation.

“A lot of kids are growing up without any exposure or knowledge of people beyond their own cultures,” Haas said.

Haas admits he’s treading on thin ice when he tells kids not to let their “brother, sister, uncle, aunt, mom or whoever” tell them what music they should like, but music softens them up for the discussion to follow. Haas’ band members tell the kids about personal experiences with segregation (guitarist George Benson), forbidden mixed marriages (bassist Sean Dobbins), or losing grandparents to Auschwitz because “one man convinced a whole country that Jewish people were the enemy” (Haas).

Haas asks the kids if they’ve ever been called names, or called other kids names.

Almost every hand goes up, Haas said.

“Everybody’s dealing with bullying, feelings of awkwardness and discomfort with people who are different than they are,” he said.

In 2004, Haas got foundation support to turn the workshops into a curriculum and lesson plans. Eventually, he wants to make the programs available online, for free, to schools everywhere.

In a sane world, Haas would get funded, feted and fanned when he sweats for this crucial work, but instead, he hustles for grants and charity support and just does a lot of it for nothing.

“It’s like being a dad,” he said. “It’s the apple of my eye.”

He should know — he’s sharing life with an 8-yearold daughter, Sophie. “She keeps me in the moment,” he said, tactfully. “Being a dad is every bit as rewarding and every bit as much work as they say.”

After Sophie goes to bed, Haas hits the piano and starts practicing and composing.

He’s getting a lot done, but still feels he’s slowing down.

“I used to be able to go on two or three hours’ sleep, but now I need four or five,” he said.

Jeff Haas Sextet

8 p.m. Friday, April 16

Creole Gallery 1218 Turner St., Lansing


(517) 487-9549