Jazz was never supposed to get old in Las Vegas.
After all, this is a city
where Duke Ellington once held court in the lounge at the Flamingo, where Sarah Vaughan and Ella Fitzgerald used to sit in at the Black
Magic on Tropicana and
Paradise, where Dizzy
Gillespie could be seen at Nero’s Nook at Caesars
Palace, the same hotel
where Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr. headlined.
Famed trombonist Carl Fontana lived here, as did legendary drummer Buddy Rich and bass pioneer Monk Montgomery. These days, dozens of top players still call Las Vegas home.
“It’s one of the jazz
capitals,” says Paul Coladarci, president of the Las Vegas Jazz Society. “You’ve got NeW York. New Orleans, Chicago, Los Angeles and here—if there’s a big five in jazz in terms of American cities, that’s probably it.”
Although Las Vegas has a
rich jazz heritage, there are only a handful of outlets for the music that once defined this city. Places such as Pogo’s have become increasingly rare. With the exception of musicians’ jam nights at
a couple of small, smoky
bars and restaurants, jazz is a fleeting presence in the city and it has been all but forgotten on the Strip.
“Las Vegas is still respected as a city as far as jazz goes,” notes pianist Dave Loeb,
director of jazz studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, who has performed with everybody from Ray Brown to Garth Brooks. “But it’s starting to become common knowledge that
there aren’t enough places to play here.”
“The level of musicianship has not decreased here, it’s the ability to find work for that level that has decreased,” adds fellow pianist Vincent Falcone, who once served as Sinatra’s music director and who currently works with singing duo Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme. “It’s
becoming an end of an era.”
And yet there remain a handful of players in this
town fighting to keep the
music alive, wondering
whatever happened to it in the first place.
For them, the beat must go on.
The golden age of Las Vegas jazz lives on the walls of Jimmy Mulidore’s home, right above the plum. carpeted stairs. “Who’s that?” the saxophonist/flutist asks with a knowing grin, pointing to a picture of himself with a man who neecla no introduction: a dapper Sinatra.
Mulidore’s smile widens and his voice softens as he turns his attention to a black- and-white photo of him with his arm around a flaxen-haired Ann-Margret, her eyes out-sparkling her shimmering gown.
“We were close,” he says. There are dozens and
dozens of portraits like these documenting Mulidore’s long history in this town’s jazz
circles, which began with a stint in the house band at the El Rancho Hotel in 1957 and culminated in Mulidore serving as the musical
director of the Las Vegas
Hilton in the ‘80s.
He has worked with
everyone from Davis to Tony Bennett, Barbra Streisand to Elvis. “I’ve got a tape where
Elvis announces me, tells
me how good I play the
flute, told me I never made a mistake,” Mulidore says. “He was wonderful. He didn’t care anything about all that excitement around him. He hated it.”
who continues to perform, attempted to help launch
an old school jazz night at the Celebrity nightclub
downtown. The theme of
the show was “Jazz as you knew it, jazz as you liked
it,” and was a stab at giving traditional jazz more of a
foothold in the city.
“It was a wonderful night,” Mulidore recalls, leaning back into his living room couch with a look of satisfaction brightening his dark, handsome features. “That room holds 500, we probably had 140, 150 people, which is a lot. The people are here. There are jazz lovers who will come out.”
Although the show
managed to pull in a
respectable draw, it wasn’t enough for the venue to make it a regular event.“People kept clamoring, ‘When you coming back?
When you coming back?” Mulidore says with a sigh. “Well, we never came back.”
As Mulidore can attest to, jazz faces an uphill climb in this city, and there are several reasons.
First, the jazz talent
pool, while still strong, has diminished over the years. Back in the ‘50s and ‘60s,
when the music reigned
supreme here, nearly every hotel had a full orchestra, providing steady work for hundreds of musicians, which drew top players from across the country to Las Vegas.
“In those days, if you wanted to make a living in music, you had to go to one of three places: New York, Los Angeles or here,” Falcone recalls. “I moved here to make a viable career out of music, to be able to make a living.”
Maintaining big orchestras often was a money-losing proposition for the hotels, but back then, music was seen as a loss leader: Bands didn’t have to make a profit for the casino, just serve as the soundtrack for patrons gambling away their rent money.
“This town was built on, ‘Here’s this expensive entertainment in the lounge area, I’m making plenty of money in the casino, and in order to keep that money flowing, I’m going to give this guy some free entertainment,” says John Nasshan, an on-air personality on local jazz station KUNVFM 91.5.
“At the Hilton, we used to lose three-and-a-half million (dollars) a year, even with Elvis Presley,” Mulidore adds. “But Paul Anka would come in, and somebody might drop two mifflon at the gambling table.”
By the ‘80s, the business model began to change for hotels and casinos. Former write-offs — food, beverage, entertainment— were expected to make money. This made employing big bands cost-prohibitive, and so the casinos began making recordings of their house orchestras, then disbanding them and playing the tapes at shows to save money. This eventually led to a musicians’ strike in 1987, but it didn’t stop the transition to taped music.
“You see a show, ‘Folies Bergere,’ and before the band was in the pit,” Mulidore says. “Now it’s a tape, with lip-syncing girls.”
With the loss of steady employment, many musicians left the city or retired from music. This reduced the talent available for the city’s jazz clubs, which often relied on musicians stopping by after their regular jobs for impromptu sets that would stretch into the early morning hours.
“At that time, there were a lot more jazz clubs and outlets for these musicians to play at after they would finish their regular gigs, and they could afford to go out and just play for fun,” says UNLV’s Loeb. “Club owners were taking advantage of that. People would come and buy drinks and it was a moneymaking opportunity for them.”
With a smaller pool of players capable of pulling in big crowds, clubs began to close.
“I think that’s probably one of the biggest factors why there isn’t as much going on now as there was in that time period,” Loeb says. As the makeup of the local jazz community began to change, so did its audience. The jazz crowd has aged since the heyday of bebop, and it isn’t exactly the demographic that clubs cater to anymore.
“There’s little money in jazz per se, for the simple reason that the jazz aficionados are a much older crowd now,” says Frank Leone, president of Musicians Local 369. “We’ve had jazz in bars around town for years, but (older jazz fans) will come in and they’ll sip their one or two beers. If you have a cover or a drink minimum, they won’t come.”
All this has pushed the traditional Las Vegas jazz scene further and further underground, and it’s in dire need of reconnecting with a younger fan base.
“If my generation doesn’t take an active stand in
introducing kids to this music, it is going to die,” the Jazz Society’s Coladarci says. “It’s going to die when we die, and that shouldn’t happen.”
THE REBIRTH OF COOL
Bobby Morris is keeping time in The Church,
sermonizing with his hands. Morris calls it “The Shuffle,” a deceptively deft drumbeat that results from him flicking his wrists quickly, like they are spring loaded.
Morris licks his lips as he plays, sweat beading up on his forehead, perspiration making his tan golf shirt wet to the touch.
He starts slowly, playing with a seven-piece band that works over Billie Holiday standards with an emphasis on finesse rather than force.
This changes quickly
Soon, Morris is driving the beat with both hands on the wheel. Flis arms loosen, and he lashes his snare — crack! crack! crack! —like lightning ripping into a redwood.
“C’mon down, c’mon
down, this is the happening!” bellows smiling singer Mary Oliver, her voice the size of a Mack truck. “We haven’t even started yet, man,” Morris announces after the band finishes its first hour long set. It’s a bit past 7 p.m., and the band will play until after 11. “We’re trying to breed a happening here,” he explains. Morris says this beneath the high, vaulted ceiling of the historic church, a cozy little building nestled downtown,
whose walls are now covered with framed Miles Davis LPs and interpretative paintings of butterflies and flowers. The space houses the Downtown Coffee Co. by day, but on Friday nights, it becomes The Church, a promising new spot for jazz.
Close to 50 people crowd into the place during a recent session, including more than a few folks in their 20s, sipping wine and rolling their shoulders as Morris duels with a rotating cast of players.
“There’s a lot of good musicians who don’t really have a place to play,” Morris says, leaning forward as he speaks, his eyes hidden behind a pair of shades. “This is for them to come out and play. You never know who’s going to show up. Every week the crowds at The Church keep getting bigger and bigger, drawn by Morris’ kinetic playing and his impressive resume. He has played with Nat King Cole, Louis Prima, the Rat Pack and dozens more. He was on a first-name basis with Jack Kennedy, and performed at his presidential inauguration in 1961. Decades ago when Morris played in the house band in the Flamingo lounge, Howard Hughes would slip him a $100 bill every time he played one of Hughes’ requests.
Morris’ fame has made him a solid draw, suggesting there is a healthy appetite for traditional jazz in this town should there be enough steady outlets for the music to be heard. And a venue such as The Church seems to have a built-in advantage in terms of survival, because the coffee shop provides it with additional revenue streams that can help subsidize the music.
The club’s solid start is a small sign of hope for the Las Vegas jazz community.
According to some, the jazz scene is already beginning to slowly pick up some momentum.
“If you look at radio trends,. stations like ours are trending up,” KUNV’s Nasshan says. “The listeners are here. There’s no reason why (jazz) can’t succeed.”
Nasshan’s optimism is shared, however guardedly, by Mulidore, who’s now hosting a monthly jazz night at the Las Vegas Country Club. Sitting in his living room, he punches his palms with his fists for added emphasis as he speaks.
“Jazz is here, the drawing power is stiff here, it’s just that you have to have somebody that really wants it,” he says. “I really feel like it could work in this town. It really could.”
For a second there, it sounds as if Mulidore’s trying to convince himself of his own argument. But then his eyes brighten, and he sticks his jaw out a little, like a prizefighter daring someone to try and send him to the mat. “It ain’t over till it’s over” he says with a wink, “And it’s not even close to being over here.”
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