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Christmas and All That Jazz in Cleveland's Playhouse Square

Jack Schantz

The drum roll leading up to Christmas will have a jazzy beat this weekend. Traditional Christmas classics will get a hip twist from the region’s jazz musicians and visitors, too. 

As WKSU’s Vivian Goodman reports, those well-known tunes provide an easy introduction to what some consider a difficult art form.

  The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra’s Jack Schantz is glad Christmas time is here, for musical reasons. The trumpeter and flugelhornist looks forward to performances at this time of year with band leader, Paul Ferguson.

“Paul’s written so many great arrangements of holiday music, and it’s always fun to revisit all that.” 

Ferguson promises the melodies at this weekend’s Cleveland Jazz Orchestra holiday concerts will be familiar.

“But we transform all the tunes. It usually swings, but you might have straight eighth notes. You might do stuff as a ballad.”  

Recognizable and swinging
Ferguson directs jazz studies at Case Western Reserve University. The trombonist and composer/arranger is jazzing up classics like “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” this weekend along with the music of Vince Guaraldi.

“I took some of the Peanuts Christmas music and rearranged it. This is very comforting to the audience. This way they hear a lot of stuff that they recognize.”  

The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra plays about 6 concerts a year at the Hanna in Cleveland’s Playhouse Square.

That’s also where Grammy-nominated saxophonist Dave Koz ‘s Christmas Tour plays tonight at the Connor Palace Theater with vocalist Bill Medley of the Righteous Brothers.

Uptempo holiday weekend
And that’s not all the jazz in the region in the run up to the holidays. Tonight, Grammy –award winning pianist Bill Cunliffe is in Akron. And composer/guitarist Brad Myer’s Quartet is at the Bop Stop on Cleveland’s west side.

Paul Ferguson says there’s more jazz at the holidays but at any time of year there’s plenty of it in the region.

“In Cleveland Heights we have Nighttown which has great jazz several nights a week.” Nighttown has been celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.

“The Bop Stop has reopened on the west side. It now is operated by the Music School Settlement. And in Akron we have a place called BLU JAZZ. I performed there in February. An exceptionally fine jazz club.” 

The state of the art form
But Ferguson is realistic about the club scene.

“Just like restaurants come and go jazz clubs come and go only faster.”   

The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra’s  Jack Schantz also directs Jazz Studies at the University of Akron. He says the region holds its own in the jazz world.

“There’s great players everywhere. There’s a great scene in Pittsburgh; there’s a great scene in Columbus; there’s a great scene in Cincinnati. Not everybody is flocking to New York like they used to.”  

But not everybody’s flocking to hear jazz, either.

“It’s never been a huge audience. Harmonically, rhythmically, structurally it’s very complex, and it requires a pretty sophisticated listener to appreciate it.”  

Jazz evolution
Many consider the golden age of jazz was when Ella Fitzgerald and Louie Armstrong were pop stars.

These days it’s more challenging, sophisticated, even academic, and more often heard in college classrooms than in smoky clubs.

Paul Ferguson says young people really dig it, though, when they get a chance to hear and play it.

Cleveland Jazz Orchestra plays
Credit Susan Bestul / Cleveland Jazz Orchestra
Cleveland Jazz Orchestra
Paul Ferguson was appointed artistic director of the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra last year. He has been director of Jazz Studies at Case Western Reserve

He’s called on often to judge jazz festivals, and finds quality often depends on whether parents can afford music lessons.

“You don’t really get a whole lot of fine bands from like the Appalachian section of Ohio, but on the other hand out in western Ohio I always remember a jazz festival out there in Defiance. Oh, exceptional bands out there. Maybe it’s just a community tradition. Where I live in Cleveland Heights right now, a very fine music program, also in Shaker Heights. So it’s part of the community ethos. The east side of Cleveland’s very artistic.”   

Easy listening
But no special training is required, he says, to open your ears to jazz at holiday time.

“Our Christmas concert will have mostly tunes everyone knows. Other concerts we do you won’t know any of the music. But hang in there. Hopefully you’ll emerge from the experience better for it.”

Cleveland Jazz Orchestra
Credit Susan Bestul / Cleveland Jazz Orchestra
Cleveland Jazz Orchestra
The Cleveland Jazz Orchestra has been around for 31 years. It's supported by the Ohio Arts Council as well as a public grant from Cuyahoga Arts & Culture. It will perform holiday music this weekend at Cleveland's historic Hanna Theater.