"It's been very gratifying to see things steadily building and growing," Nashville Jazz Workshop co-founder Lori Mechem says. "When Roger [Spencer] and I first came to Nashville more than two decades ago, to be honest, we really weren't sure whether there were enough jazz musicians around to even constitute a community. Over that time, and especially the last decade, some have left, some have died and some new ones have arrived. But a lot of these early people like Chris Brown and Jeff Coffin, who came pretty soon after we did, and Jeff Hall, Christina Watson, Liz Johnson and Annie [Sellick], some of our first students who've blossomed and are now among our biggest success stories, have made it all worthwhile."
Sellick's newest album, Street of Dreams, boasts rich, compelling versions of Cole Porter, Frank Loesser and Gershwin tunes, plus a rollicking cover of a lesser known but delightful Leiber/Stoller tune, "Some Cats Know," a confident and soaring rendition of the title track and a strong performance on Ray Brown's "I Know You Oh So Well." Guest stars include Nashville trumpeter and frequent NJW contributor and instructor Rod McGaha, and such acclaimed jazz players as pianist Tamir Hendelman and drummer Jeff Hamilton, both of whom have appeared at the NJW's "Jazz Cave" concert/performance room inside their headquarters at 1319 Adams Street.
This year's fundraiser and party at Limelight includes more than four hours of music. Ritmos Picantes, the city's best band specializing in Brazilian music, whose lineup will include Mechem, Spencer, Chris Brown, Denis Solee and Pete Huttinger, will perform, as will Sellick and the NJW All Star Ensemble, whose special and august lineup includes Duffy Jackson, John Birdsong, McGaha, Rahsaan Barber, Bruce Dudley and Don Aliquo.
With a diverse and extensive curriculum of performance classes for instrumentalists and vocalists, plus equally rigorous and varied listening classes aimed at enhancing the knowledge and awareness of non-musicians, the NJW is a busy place during the six-week periods that comprise each semester. Courses are not only quite reasonable ($200 for six weeks, $35 for a two-hour session), they are designed to provide realistic and intensified instruction in exactly what it takes to be a legitimate jazz musician.
"We're not really the place for someone who's just taking their first piano lesson or has recently purchased a guitar and wants to learn some chords," Mechem laughs. "We get a lot of adults who've been musicians, took time off to get married and have families, and now want to get back into the business. ...You have to have some facility on your instrument or with your voice. These are pro level classes."
A 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, NJW has acquired national cachet over the past decade thanks to an aggressive campaign of fundraising, community outreach and curriculum expansion overseen by Mechem and co-founder/bassist/teacher Spencer. Mechem also cites the efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers who sit on advisory committees and the NJW board, work at events, even maintain their blog and help with the website (www.nashvillejazz.org). Radio stations WMOT 89.5-FM and WFSK 88.1-FM have helped by keeping audiences aware of NJW events and regularly playing the music. (Both are among sponsors for the fundraiser.)
The husband-and-wife duo's principle goals for the NJW remain being vigorous advocates for jazz, helping oversee and develop the prowess of the growing number of musicians coming there for classes, providing a place for local and national musicians to play through the "Jazz Cave" venue, and continuing to expand and build the organization.
"We're not through yet, either," Mechem says. "In fact, I think the next 10 years are going to be even more exciting."