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Cat’s out of the bag

Unsung jazz warrior Jeff Shoup gets JAMM tribute


Drummer Jeff Shoup, 46, wasn’t looking for a lifetime tribute from the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan. In fact, he lobbied against it.

“I was like, ‘Don’t do it,’” he said.

The hard-working, hard-swinging drummer whose surname rhymes with “shout” is probably Lansing’s most under-appreciated behind-thescenes jazz warrior, but that’s about to change.

The unofficial (and unpaid) artistic director of Lansing JazzFest and guiding force of Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s is about to get fêted, big time, at Urban Beat Sunday afternoon.

“Yeah, it’s pretty darn cool,” Shoup conceded. “I don’t really have a choice.”

While others tried and failed for decades to keep a long-running, club-style jazz night going in Lansing, Shoup has turned Jazz Tuesdays into the premiere venue for jazz in the area.

“We needed something like this in the community,” MSU Jazz Studies director Rodney Whitaker said.

The weekly ritual draws a panoply of local and national artists, including the stellar professors and students at MSU Jazz Studies program, with Shoup himself usually at the drum kit. Last Tuesday, Whitaker played a scorching set at Moriarty’s with visiting saxophonist Andrew Speight and friends. The pub was so packed you had to crowd surf to get to the restroom.

“He understood how to tap into a certain consciousness that was ready for something regular, and he’s been very dedicated and hard-working in making it happen,” Whitaker said.

It’s easy to forget how precarious a venture it was at first.

“When you start something here, people are quick to tell you that it’s not going to last,” Whitaker said. “You hear the reports about all the things that just didn’t happen. It’s discouraging, but you have to work like he did. He uses all the social media to promote it.”

The three-way synergy among MSU’s Jazz Studies program, the East Lansing Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and Jazz Tuesdays keeps the music circulating from academia, where it is taught and nurtured, to the streets where it can breathe, and the clubs, where it was born.

“Especially for the students, it’s really important to have a place to put it all on the line,” Whitaker said. “It brings so many excellent musicians every week to our community.”

This year, the East Lansing Jazz Festival board renewed its sponsorship of Jazz Tuesdays for a third year, despite facing financial challenges.

“That says a lot to me about how much they value what my little jazz community is providing to them,” Shoup said.

At first, Shoup just wanted a place to play, if only for free coffee. In the fall of 2009, he started playing Tuesdays at the former Gone Wired Café, now The Avenue.

“I realized that to play jazz, you have to play jazz,” he said.

He had some real skin in the game by then. Six years earlier, he tried to do the responsible thing by dropping out of jazz studies at MSU to sell mortgages. After that, he became a digital media specialist.

“I hated it,” he said. “Every morning the elevator opened on the eighth floor I could feel a piece of my soul being chipped away.”

With the encouragement of his wife, Paula, he took a chance and went back to MSU to finish his bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

Whitaker thinks the detour helped Shoup grow and fueled his persistence.

“Being a little older, you have to humble yourself to come back to school, and I think his humanity grew from his experience in the corporate world,” Whitaker said. “I think it made him understand things more about the music and its importance in his life.”

Now Shoup teaches music at Hope College and plays about 100 gigs a year, on top of his duties at Mort’s and the Lansing JazzFest.

Whitaker, along with hundreds of musicians locally and around the state, prizes Shoup’s supple, swinging drumming and keen musicianship.

“He really needs to be playing more nationally and internationally, but that would be a void in our community,” Whitaker said.

Organist Jim Alfredson, the driving force of Organissimo, has played with Shoup, on and off, for more than 20 years. “We’ve kind of grown up together in jazz,” Alfredson said. “We don’t have to talk about tunes, we just go.”

Alfredson said dependability is only the beginning of Shoup’s value as a collaborative artist.

“He’s creative,” Alfredson said. “He’s listening all the time. He’s also a joy to be around — never in a bad mood, always smiling. You don’t want bad vibes on the bandstand.”

Jazz Tuesdays keeps growing, in part, because Shoup isn’t interested in a weekly hang with the usual cronies. Touring musicians from across the Midwest ask Shoup for a piece of the action at Mort’s.

“He’s willing to put aside his own ego and get new blood in there,” Alfredson said. “People get bored with the same thing over and over. He sometimes sacrifices his own pay so a drummer can come in with a different group, and that’s very honorable.”

Shoup has also had a big impact on Lansing’s Old Town JazzFest, where he’s been the unofficial, unpaid music director for five years.

“That shows how he’s committed to the community,” Whitaker said. “He’s certainly changed that festival for the better in terms of the line-up and his vision of it.”

Meanwhile, the calendar for Jazz Tuesdays fills up faster and faster, as returning and new artists clamor to mix it up in sundry delightful combinations.

“I don’t see an end to it at this point,” Shoup said. “Moriarty’s is making money, I’m making money. I get to play with all these bad cats.”

10th Annual JAMM Tribute

Concert Jeff Shoup, honoree 2-5 p.m. Sun., Nov. 11 Urban Beat Events Center 1213 Turner Road, Lansing $15-25 www.jazzjamm.com (517) 242-1126


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