Jazz on a Summer’s Night
A pair of CDs highlight the rich rewards of commercial jazz.
For a lot of years now, bassist Bill and vocalist Pam Van Dyke Crosby have exerted an incalculable influence on Tulsa-area jazz, and they continue to be among the busiest players on the scene. But if they never hit another lick, their legacy would be preserved forever in a couple of CDs recorded in the last year: Jazz on a Summer’s Night – Early, released in October 2012, and Jazz on a Summer’s Night – Late, which has just been released. (The discs also preserve the memory of Tulsa’s Ciao Baby, the Tulsa restaurant and jazz venue that expired a few months after the June 10th live show and recording.)
Taken together, the two albums not only provide a vibrant record of a great live show, but also an indication of how rich and rewarding “commercial” jazz can be, when performed by people who know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.
Both CDs are packed full of Great American Songbook standards both well-known (“Skylark,” “How High the Moon,” “Long Ago and Far Away”) and a little less so (“Poinciana,” “Spring Can Really Hang You up the Most”), linked together by Pam’s spot-on vocals, improvisational roominess that allows members of the band to shine and a palpable desire on the part of all performers to keep the audience engaged and entertained, even as they indulge in some impressive musical explorations. As Pam says in her introduction to Harold Arlen’s “Out of This World,” the second cut on the first disc, “The guys are going to be playing solos in most of the tunes as long as they want to, because we’re going for the jazz.”
“That’s what jazz is,” explains Bill. “If you’ve got it in you to play a couple or three choruses, go for it. And when you’re through with what you’ve got to say, it’s the next guy’s turn.
“It’s jazz,” he says of the band’s repertoire and approach, “but it’s fairly commercial from the standpoint of what some people are doing in jazz. We kind of mix it up, and we want the audience to like it, you know.”
This sure-handed welding of jazz to standards can best be heard in a track from the first disc that combines “How High the Moon” and Charlie Parker’s hard-bop composition “Ornithology.” As Bill points out, the two are more connected than it might appear.
“Those (bop) guys, like Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, took standards and made jazz tunes out of them. ‘Ornithology’ was written on the basis of ‘How High the Moon,’ on its chord changes. They’re really the same thing. The other one (on the two-disc set), ‘Oleo,’ is based on ‘I Got Rhythm.’ It’s a tune (by Sonny Rollins) that a lot of the jazz bands have played over the years.”
In addition to Pam and Bill, the two albums feature Scott McQuade on keyboard and accordion, Tommy Poole on saxophones and clarinet, Tony Yohe on drums and Wade Robertson on percussion. All are top-drawer instrumentalists with hundreds of professional credits among them, ranging from a touring stint with western-swing legend Hank Thompson (Robertson) to gigs with Rosemary Clooney and Jack Jones (Poole). Yohe has drummed with a number of different area groups for years, and Canada native McQuade was recently profiled in the Billboard Books publication The New Face of Jazz.
“These musicians are just terrific,” says Pam. “They bring the level of what we do up.”
The Crosbys, who recently celebrated their 30th wedding anniversary, are no slouches themselves. A native Oklahoman, Pam got her first high-profile music job with the Sammy Kaye Orchestra, touring nationally as a featured vocalist with the band for four years. Upon her return to Oklahoma, she continued performing and touring and hasn’t stopped since. Bill learned to play bass while in the Navy, and, like Pam, has a massive list of credits that encompasses road work, recording, and backing nationally known headliners.
Both are founding members of the Tulsa Jazz Society, a group that promotes awareness of jazz and live music in the area. That, of course, is what the Jazz on a Summer’s Night CDs do as well.
The Crosbys also hope that the impact of the new discs goes well beyond Tulsa and its environs. Bill, the producer, has taken pains to make sure the mechanical rights for each song they recorded are paid for, something that doesn’t happen with a lot of local CDs. Because he secured the proper rights, the discs can be pitched to internet radio, satellite radio and other national and international outlets without any fear of recrimination from performing-rights organizations.
“Yeah, we’re legal enough to do it,” he says with a laugh. “I’m just not sure how to do it yet.”
Of course, acquiring rights takes money (which is one big reason why producers of small-run CDs often ignore the process), and money goes a long way toward explaining why the two Jazz on A Summer’s Night discs came out six months apart. Since the Crosbys were financing the project, they wanted to have enough in the kitty to do it right. And, as is the case with their approach to music, they had their audience in mind as well.
“We could’ve done a two-CD set, but it would’ve cost people more to buy, like 30 bucks or something,” says Bill. “So we thought, ‘Well, let’s just make one now and one later, and call them ‘early’ and ‘late,’ and put 15 bucks apiece on them.’”
The behind-the-scenes people on the discs are also an impressive group, ranging from Tulsa pianist-composer Ted Moses, who arranged several of the tunes (as did Scott McQuade), to noted photographer Gaylord Herron, whose striking photos grace both covers.
“Gaylord does what he calls ‘drive-by shooting,’” says Pam with a laugh. “He doesn’t use Photoshop or anything like that. He just drives down Riverside Drive and shoots as he goes by. That’s why there’s so much motion and color in the photographs we got to use.”
Vocalist Cindy Cain was also involved with the discs, both as a photographer and as an inspiration for the recording.
“We had kicked around the idea of doing it at the (Oklahoma) Jazz Hall of Fame, because they have a nice piano there, and we kicked around the idea of doing it in the studio,” Bill recalls. “But when I heard Cindy Cain’s CD she made (at Ciao), with Hank Charles’ recording, I thought it was great and decided to do it there with Hank – whose recording is one of the highlights of our whole deal, as far as I’m concerned.
“We always liked the way we sounded at Ciao, the energy of playing live. This is all one take. There are mistakes in it. Maybe you can’t hear them, but they’re there. I could’ve gone back into the studio and changed them, but I just didn’t want to do that.”
And so it stands, captured forever on two CDs, the authentic sound of one of Tulsa’s great jazz acts on an Oklahoma summer’s night.
“Part of the reason for doing this is to kind of have it as part of our heritage,” muses Pam, “something that we did that’s really us. For me, I think, it’s a way of saying who we are and what we like and what our kind of music is.”
She laughs. “We’d also like to sell some of them.”
Both Jazz on a Summer’s Night – Early and Jazz on a Summer’s Night – Late are available in Tulsa at Dwelling Spaces, G. Oscar Bicycle and the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame gift shop. Internet outlets include CD Baby and iTunes.