A weekend for lovers—of jazz, people and great food—turned out to be a fascinating study of how the jazz ensemble diversifies its set list for the same captive audience over multiple performances. At the Memorial Day “Eat, Sleep, Jazz” event held in Greensboro, NC’s O. Henry Hotel, a core of five musicians (sometimes joined by other instrumentalists) held court and the guests’ rapt attention. Had their musical choices only been Great American Songbook or bop, for example, we wouldn’t have appreciated their gifts in R&B, soul and blues. Thank God all were offered on this supreme musical silver platter.
Let me tell you about some stellar musicians who have serious chops and heart. I have only great things to say about them and have fallen in love with all of them over this weekend. Dave Fox on piano was unparalleled, versatile, a genius technician with a special knack for improv that brings songs to new heights. Bassist Pat Lawrence is intuitive and dances over the strings, being tender at times or physical at others; sometimes softly, creatively navigating the strings and conveying beauty, sorrow and funk, sometimes with the slap or hard pull on a string to punctuate a point. Sax player Neill Clegg is just plainly speaking a master, using growls and sotto voce, fluid lines and sometimes jagged lines, drawing raw emotion from his soul out through the bell of his instrument. Also, he triples on clarinet and flute, and though you can say yeah, the fingering is basically the same, what’s the difference, well! It was true enlightenment to hear him evoke a completely different feel and character from each instrument he played. Two vocalists blended their talents with brilliant harmonies as well as sang solo: Diana Tuffin, whose spectacular range and phrasing is a delicious thing to behold (and a beautiful stage presence to match). She purely lit up the stage. And then Clinton Horton, whose deep nod to the singer Lou Rawls shows up in his tone (he channels it spectacularly) but also whose own timbre and quality are jaw-droppingly delightful.
The venue had the musicians in several different rooms but most of all I liked the lobby with its overstuffed chairs and couches (plenty of pillows as well) and I was so pleased to see the same faces turn out for all the performances. We became a kind of comfy, jazzy armchair community who bonded and formed friendships over and because of the music and let it be said, thanks to the musicians, who sought out each guest to introduce themselves and talk music and wherever else the conversation led. I have never seen such sociable musicians in this kind of situation and it was one of the most heartfelt things about the weekend. Let me add a non-musician here who was as much a part of the tuneful times as anyone: Chip Holton, who is a formidable artist with over 700 watercolor paintings throughout this grand hotel and nearby facilities which here included a huge still life over the brick oven in the main restaurant (Green Valley Grill). Chip was busy scanning the room and rendering guests (perhaps he captured all of them, and multiple times at that) and musicians in sketches in graphite and colored pencils. On the last evening, he created a stunning painting of the musicians on stage (“Jazzed!!!” shown below). What a way to add personality to an already one-of-a-kind event.
Speaking earlier of set lists, the only repeat that came to mind was “The Guy/Girl from Ipanema” which was totally different in the hands of different vocalists. Night number three saw three new musicians invited to the stage: vocalists Sarah Strable (who blued those notes wonderfully in “Summertime”) and Martha Bassett (a delicate handling of the classic “Onda” [“Wave”]), each completely unique in their beautiful tone and cadence, plus the extraordinary trombonist, Dr. John Henry Jr., whose technique included subtlety, sass and too many other emotions to list. The finale on the third night was an awesome display of immersive music with all the musicians up on stage doing “You’ve Got a Friend” including an explosive three-part harmony among the female vocalists.
A partial list of songs only hints at the versatility of these musicians, and included my own request “On Green Dolphin Street” as well as “Bye Bye Blackbird,” “No Moon at All,” “In a Mellow Tone,” “No Greater Love,” “Take the A Train,” “Tangerine,” “I Remember April,” “Color My World,” “Stormy Monday,” “King of the Road,” “All of Me,” “Coolin’ Out,” “You’ll Never Find,” “Me and Mrs. Jones,” “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and more.
There was not one detail missed by the hotel staff who not only allowed the musicians to do their thing but provided an atmosphere where all were receptive, sated, relaxed and ready to enjoy the experience where we all shared the love of music. As a hotel operation, the staff wasn’t just attentive and good at their jobs. This is an employee-owned business, and you can tell that each server, front desk person and back-office staffer loves what they do and enjoys meeting and taking care of their guests. A very special shout out to General Manager Michael Reynolds who is magically able to anticipate the guests’ needs and be on the spot for whatever is desired even before we know what we need (as in the bespoke truffles, turn-down service, and untold other niceties). As well, thanks go to the manager of communications Virginia Phelps, who graciously extended the invitation to me and my husband.
The hotel has (pre-pandemic) held many such special events and fun weekends and hopes to get back to its regular Thursday night jazz offering shortly. This weekend was to step out and say jazz is aliving and thriving and to broadcast that this is one of the best spots to experience it. My hunch is that now is the time and I hope for the community of Greensboro and travelers from all over that this occurs just as soon as possible.
I told the hotel management I would give an honest review of the weekend. I hope they believe me because I have nothing negative to say, except for one thing, and this is from the heart: the moment it was over and we headed back home, I wished we could have twisted back time and started it all over again.
For more information visit https://ohenryhotel.com.
[By way of full disclosure, the O. Henry comped me and my husband for accommodations, entertainment, and some meals.]
All photos © Debbie Burke with the exception of the painting which is the property and copyright of Chip Holton.
Text © 2022 Debbie Burke.