Celebrating Jazz on Main Street - by Mike Miller

This First Thursday Jazz is the Main Event

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     Thirty years ago, a Columbia restaurant owner named Veron Melonas and his trumpet-playing pal Johnny Helms decided that Columbia needed a cool jazz party right on Main Street. Melonas owned the Elite Epicurean, a top-notch eatery right across the street from City Hall, and he said, “Why don’t we put the stage right outside?” Helms knew a lot of jazz players in New York, so he got on the phone and invited several of them down to the South Carolina capital city. Just like that, a jazz festival was born.

     “Jazz on Main” as it was called was first staged in July of 1987, and it ran for 10 years. One of the festival’s first performers, pianist Marian McPartland, called it “a true happening,” and it was pretty special. Musicians who came to Columbia during those years included trumpeter Clark Terry, saxophonist Jimmy Heath, guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli, and bassist Milt Hinton, just to name a few.

     To celebrate the 30th anniversary of that first “Jazz on Main” show, November’s First Thursday on Main will become a jazz festival of sorts. But this will not be a nostalgic event. It will showcase many of Columbia’s current crop of talented jazz musicians, players such as Mark Rapp, Tony Lee, Amos Hoffman, and Sam Edwards. Columbia jazz veterans such as Dick Goodwin, Danny Boozer, Robert Gardiner, and Jim Mings will also be performing.  

     Festivities begin at 6 p.m., and there will be live music at several locations on Main Street. Trumpeter Mark Rapp is the prime mover on Columbia’s contemporary jazz scene, and his quartet will be performing in the Main Street Public House. The guitar duo of Mings and Monte Craig will be in front of Mast General Store, and a revolving array of local jazz stars, including guitarist Hoffman, bassist Edwards, trombonist Mitch Butler, and drummer Boozer, will play on a stage in Boyd Plaza outside the Columbia Museum of Art. Add trumpeter Goodwin and the Tony Lee Group to the mix on Boyd Plaza, and you’ve got one of the most impressive collection of jazz players to come together in Columbia in quite some time.

     Back in 1987, there was an impressive array of jazz artists playing around town as well. Goodwin’s big band played weekly shows in a club called Greenstreet’s. Guitarist Terry Rosen and bassist Frank Duvall could be heard often at happy hour in the Five Points restaurant Garibaldi’s. But the most adventurous jazz happening took place on Tuesday night in Pug’s, a Five Points bar named after owner Pug Wallace. Weekly jam sessions there featured players such as drummers Reggie Ritter and Ted Linder, guitarists Mings and Rosen, trumpeters Al McClain and Helms, keyboardists John Drake and John Emche, and saxophonists Hans Tueber, Roger Pemberton, and a teenager named Chris Potter. For Columbia jazz fans, those nights in Pug’s were not to be missed.

     Today’s Columbia jazz scene is just as vibrant, and truth be told, it’s more diverse and active than its counterpart from three decades ago. Jazz can still be heard in Five Points at Speakeasy’s on Saluda Street. But the epicenter for jazz has moved uptown to places such as Public House on Main, Gervais and Vine, and Pearlz in the Vista.

     Other Columbia nightspots are featuring jazz nights, and there are many other exceptional musicians playing around town than just the ones mentioned above. It’s a great time for jazz artists and fans in Columbia, and that’s why it seemed like a good idea to revive the spirit of “Jazz on Main” and celebrate this cool, complex, and free-flowing music in the capital city.