Ambrosia in a tumbler

Lansing jazz venues make the best of a ‘really weird’ situation


When it comes to jazz venues, Greater Lansing is a Midwestern-modest wine connoisseur. Tucked mostly out of sight are barrels and bottles of the finest stuff — nationally acclaimed musicians like trombonist Michael Dease, bassist Rodney Whitaker and guitarist Randy Napoleon, along with their ever-multiplying students, all in various stages of star evolution. Add fine local vintages like organist Jim Alfredson and salsa master Mike Eyia and there’s a lot to drink up.

But when you go to the cupboard, expecting fancy stemware, you find a jumble of tumblers, coffee cups with bank logos and battered travel mugs. In Lansing, you drink your jazz ambrosia — hot, cool or mellow — from any vessel available, from an Irish pub to a public park. The music and the company are what matters.

“It’s funny because you’re playing these little hole-in-the-wall venues, but I’m playing with world-class people,” Napoleon said. “I don’t feel that the people I’m able to play with are less than the people I’ve played with in New York. And these students can really play. It’s a great situation — and really weird.”

Michigan State University has several dedicated music venues, including the Fairchild Theatre, Cook Recital Hall and the new Billman Music Pavilion, where everything is state-of-the-art, climate-controlled and educational, but french fries, hugs from old friends and massive mugs of beer are in short supply.

Off-campus, jazz can burst out almost anywhere in Lansing, from Blue Owl Coffee in REO Town to the parking lot of the Eastwood Towne Center to the lower level of the downtown library, but we’ll concentrate on three of the busiest jazz venues in the area, with apologies to any establishments that have been left out.

Hands down, the most venerable jazz tradition in town is Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s Pub on East Michigan Avenue. The venue will celebrate a staggering nine years of weekly jazz nights July 25.

The music is first-rate, from national poll winners like Dease and Whitaker to out-of-town luminaries like New York organist Brian Charette.

A newbie might wonder — am I welcome? One rumpled smile of greeting from drummer Jeff Shoup tells you all you need to know.

This is serious jazz, but at Mort’s, they only burn the candle at one end. The music starts at 7 p.m., so people can catch dinner first, and the jam session ends at 10 p.m., so they can climb into bed.

“Moriarty’s on a Tuesday night has become a community unto itself,” vocalist Sunny Wilkinson said. “Jeff has, little by little, created a real jazz venue where people listen, appreciate the music and are moved. People have tables that they specifically occupy each week, and most people greet each other warmly with hugs. There is a lot of joy going around.”

Shoup said the two most frequent comments he hears from visiting artists are, “I can’t believe all these people came out to hear us play” and “I can’t believe people are actually listening and paying attention.”

“Sometimes I have to remind musicians that they don’t have to sandbag and play super quiet so as not to disrupt anyone’s dinner,” Shoup said. “The people are here to hear you — turn that thing up!”

“The stage, the sound system and the lighting all add to the ambiance,” Wilkinson said. “Hats off to Jeff Shoup for creating this gem in the disguise of a local bar.”

Meanwhile, tucked into the century-old brickwork of Old Town is UrbanBeat, formerly the rough-and-rowdy Mustang Bar. Owner Terry Terry and his crew keep the place hopping nearly every night with a wide range of events, from poetry readings to private parties, but the epicenter of Michigan JazzFest never strays far from jazz.

One memorable night, Whitaker brought a New York-level frontline of Terell Stafford and Tim Warfield. Dease held a grand CD release party there last month. Eyia’s Orquesta Ritmo frequently blows in and proceeds to blow the roof off. UrbanBeat also pulls top jazz artists from across the Midwest, like guitarist Fareed Haque and trumpeter Walter White.

“UrbanBeat has turned into a gorgeous concert venue,” Wilkinson said. “The ambiance has a hip city vibe about it. The sound guys are wonderful and helpful. The lighting is beautiful. It’s also a plus that they now have a grand piano. Our audiences are there to listen and participate with their encouragement and enthusiasm. It’s not just a gig — it’s an occasion when we play at UrbanBeat.”

Most Sundays, Napoleon holds intimate court at one of the region’s newer jazz havens, Red Cedar Spirits in East Lansing. Napoleon has been hosting the weekly sessions for about a year, unless he’s out of town.

“We have a hardcore group of regulars who are there every week, so it kind of feels like ‘Cheers,’ where everybody knows your name,” Napoleon said.

As with Mort’s and UrbanBeat, the ambiance is friendly and the music is nonpareil. Napoleon has brought along many other MSU professors at one time or another, as well as visiting luminaries like Ann Arbor bassist and composer Paul Keller and New York bassist John Webber.

“I’ve traveled all over the world, and you just don’t find a talented pool of musicians like we have in Michigan,” Napoleon said.

Many of them are in a phase of life where they’re ready to settle down, raise a family and teach or pursue other projects, and local music lovers reap the benefits.

“It’s a beautiful feeling,” Napoleon said of performing at Red Cedar Spirits. “I spent the first 15 years of my career, after I finished college, traveling on the road more than I was home. Then I had kids and started teaching, and I’ve had to slow my touring schedule, but it’s important for me to keep on playing and make music at a high level, and I’m able to do that there. I feel like we can bring people a little taste of what the music is like in New York. I’ll also say their bourbon is quite spectacular.”


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