By Lee Shappell
Woody Wilson chuckles as he recalls the decade-long journey. Never, he says, could he have envisioned the small, local jazz series, whose roots were in the back room at the old Monti’s La Casa Vieja in downtown Tempe, morphing into one of the premier series in the country.
“I can’t believe we are up to 100 shows,” Wilson said.
But they are, and Wilson’s Tempe-based Lakeshore Music Inc., a charitable nonprofit corporation that presents his jazz series at Tempe Center for the Arts, persevered through a turbulent decade to reach its milestone centennial presentation on Saturday, April 21, with The Jeff Hamilton Trio. All seats to the 7:30 p.m. show are $40 and available at the TCA Box office or online at lakeshoremusic.org.
“I never expected it to last this long, quite frankly,” said Wilson, a south Tempe resident who is founder and president of Lakeshore Music. “I never expected the legs it got. It started as a hobby on steroids and became a passion.
“And it’s not just jazz. We’ve done blues, folk, chamber music, mariachis. It’s music all over the map.”
But at its heart, it remains jazz.
Wilson, who serves on several Tempe civic boards, councils and panels, has worked nearly his entire life in the performance and creative arts. For 26 years, he was the head writer of the classic syndicated newspaper comic strips Rex Morgan, MD and Judge Parker, with daily estimated readership at 30 million in North America and 16 foreign countries. As he approached retirement, he moved the jazz music that he’d always enjoyed onto his front burner.
Lakeshore’s 100th show is a tremendous milestone in the Valley performing-arts presenter community. It covers a decade that included a major recession that knocked out many small businesses, especially in the performing arts; it comes in the face of increasing competition as new performing-arts venues sprouted up across the Valley, especially near the new Arizona State University Downtown campus (The Nash), as the economy recovered (Musical Instrument Museum and Mesa Arts Center are a couple of others); and it represents a gamble that paid off as Lakeshore Music morphed from three small jazz series and moved into the sparkling new Tempe Center for the Arts in 2007.
This special centennial presentation features The Jeff Hamilton Trio, comprising three all-stars on the national jazz scene. Fresh off Jazz Cruise 2018 and a three-stop tour of Germany, Hamilton, a drummer extraordinaire, is joined by Tamir Hendelman, an award-winning jazz pianist, and Christoph Luty, known for his melodic bass lines. Winner of the 2018 Sarasota Jazz Festival Satchmo Award, Hamilton and his trio’s most recent album, “Live from San Pedro,” released in February, is rocketing up the jazz chart.
“These guys are the best of the best, whether it’s East Coast or West Coast,” Wilson said. “Jeff, at this point in his career, is the most accomplished jazz drummer on the planet. There are lots of good ones, but Jeff is the one.
“When you get a group like Jeff’s with just the three pieces (drums, bass, piano), to me that’s what jazz is all about. That’s jazz perfection.”
Wilson in 2014 co-founded a Lakeshore spinoff, Tempe-based Cuba Rhythm and Views, with Neil Birnbaum, then director of Northwest Sinfonietta in the Seattle area. Birnbaum has since moved to Gilbert.
Cuba Rhythm and Views conducts several U.S. Treasury Department-sanctioned People-to-People Cultural Explorations of Cuba each year. Treasury Department sanction is necessary to make tours of Cuba legal. Cuba Rhythm and Views conducts these tours accompanied by U.S. musicians, who perform shows there, several times a year (the next one is May 23-30 with jazz trumpeter Byron Stripling of the Count Basie Orchestra accompanying).
In return, Wilson brings Cuba’s top musicians to the U.S. to perform concerts (for example, Cuban pianist Aldo López-Gavilán was Lakeshore Music’s January, 2018, show).
“Going to Cuba the first time, and being exposed to this remarkable music and the artists who perform it, changed my life,” Wilson said. “That’s how meaningful collaborations are made. It’s about exposing Americans to a marvelous culture and the creative expression in Cuba.
“We are competing with big companies who have a lot more marketing clout than we do, but I think we’re on the right track because we offer a solid market niche. We are not your typical Cuban tour. Our tours are about the fine arts and the cultural life, which is very different.”
Lakeshore Music, Inc., not only presents world-class jazz programming at the TCA, but also provides innovative workshops and master class opportunities for promising middle and high school music students throughout the community.
In addition to presenting a Cuban musician and doing the Cuba tours, Wilson has attempted to reach out to the Valley Latino cultural community with his selection of artists for Lakeshore’s series. In February, Lakeshore presented Carmela y Mas, a longtime fixture in the Valley music scene, along with Mariachi Pasion, an all-female group that founded when the girls were students at ASU. They got together informally to play for a relative. They were so well received, they concluded that they could play gigs and earn side money. They worked their way through school as mariachis and have stayed together. And in its May 2017-18 season finale, Lakeshore will present Brazilian guitar sensation Diego Figueiredo, who performs a fusion of Brazilian music and jazz.
Lakeshore strives to add value to Tempe through this presentation of culture, Wilson says.
“Our goal always has been to bring the finest musicians in the world to the world’s most-beautiful facility, The TCA,” Wilson said.
Lee Shappell was a newspaper editor and writer in the Valley for nearly four decades. He now enjoys jazz and continuing to dabble with writing just enough to keep him off area golf courses, sparing them serious damage.
Information: The Jeff Hamilton Trio in Lakeshore Music’s Landmark 100th Concert
7:30 p.m., Saturday, April 21; Tempe Center for the Arts, Studio Hall; 700 W. Rio Salado Parkway, Tempe. All seats $40.
Tickets: www.lakeshoremusic.org, 480-350-2822, or TCA Box Office