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  • Michelle Gill

Making the Old New: Tallahassee’s Young Jazz Artists

I grew up on The Rolling Stones, Lynyrd Skynyrd, and The Allman Brothers. Over the years my tastes broadened to include punk, Americana, and classical. I had no idea that in my 60s, fate would find me hooked on the best music ever — jazz.


My father was a jazz pianist, and my older trombone-playing brother loved to put a Stan Getz record on the turntable, but my dad left when I was three, and my brother joined the navy shortly thereafter. So except for a brief sojourn into the music of Billie Holiday, jazz was never my go-to for listening.


Jack Straub on bass

My stepson, Jack Straub, is the one who enlightened me. In high school, Jack learned to play the upright bass and joined the school’s bluegrass ensemble. They performed quite a bit around North Florida, but bluegrass wasn’t enough for his wide-ranging curiosity. It wasn’t long before he found his true metier in jazz. After high school he was accepted into the Florida State University jazz program.


The FSU Jazz program features luminaries such as Marcus Roberts, William Peterson, Leon Anderson, Rodney Jordan, and others. Just down the street, Florida A & M University also has a stellar jazz program, featuring a nationally ranked Jazz Ensemble. Both schools give recitals and concerts regularly, and the excess of talent spills out into the community. (You can find schedules on their websites.)


The jazz scene has been brewing in Tallahassee for years with various clubs that have come and gone and a variety of talented musicians, but with a new crop of students every year it’s exhilirating to discover how they are taking a century-old art form and making it their own.


The first time I heard Jack perform jazz was in a coffeehouse in the Railroad Square Arts District in Tallahassee. A young trumpet player from Miami named Jianni Lazaga fronted the band. Jack’s dad and I were mesmerized by the intense energy of these performers who were still in their late teens. It was as if my ears heard jazz for the first time ever — and, man, I was wowed.


After the gig, a young woman came up to talk to them. I later learned she was Rachel Hillman, a local singer-songwriter, who had once studied opera at Florida State. Jack and Rachel and their friends were soon performing together in music festivals, churches, and venues along the Forgotten Coast. Rachel plays a variety of styles but her voice naturally lends itself to the improvisational currents of jazz. IMHO, she’s as good a jazz singer as anyone out there.


Jack Straub, Rachel Hillman and guitarist

Rachel sometimes fronts a jazz band called Rachel Hillman and the Dogwoods with Rachel on vocals and guitar, Jack on bass, and various friends on trumpet, tenor sax, trombone, and drums. Jack writes the jazz arrangements. They performed last summer at Cascades Park — an outdoor venue with fountains and lakes that you must visit if you come to Tallahassee. Recently featured in Tallahassee Magazine, an interviewer described Rachel’s most recent album, Influences, as containing “a quirky and sometimes wry, Maria Muldaur-jazz style.”


When the pandemic finally let up in 2021, my husband and I started going out to hear these young musicians play locally. We were astounded by the virtuosity of the performers, usually students and faculty from the jazz programs at Florida State and Florida A & M Universities. As they play together in an ever-changing configuration, they display an amazing array of influences including Klezmer, classical, Broadway, jazz greats like Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, country, funk, and Latin music.


Some of them are even making their own compositions. Jack performs his original work with a band he has put together called Foxfire. He describes his pieces as ‘pseudo-jazz and anarcho-blues.’ I describe it as amazing.


Rudi Neubrander on drums, Rhys Bennett on sax, and Jack Straub on bass

Another jazz student, Rhys Bennett, who plays flute, saxophone and piano, — sometimes alternating between the latter two in the same song — also writes his own music. I once heard Bennett play a jazz riff on Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” and then seque into a wholly original composition. The musicians erupted in a burst of kinetic energy.


Jack jokes that he and his fellow musicians are performing in an anachronistic genre, and yet the music they play is so fresh it feels newborn.


I’m surprised that more people in Tallahassee don’t appreciate this scene in their back yard. To me it’s like Chicago must have been in the 20s — something new and original bubbling just below the surface of our mundane lives. I still love rock, but I’d never go out every week to hear it. Jazz, on the other hand, always offers something new, something stimulating.


If you visit Tallahassee, check out the Over/Under Bar on Thomasville Road on a Wednesday or Friday. Downstairs is where you’ll usually find jazz, good eats, and great wines. The Winehouse in Market Square also hosts jazz nights. Or go to the Blue Tavern on Monroe on the third Thursday of the month where Jack hosts a jam with a band called The Blacklight District All-Stars. The night starts with a themed house set (Alice Coltrane was a recent theme!), and then the students and locals show up with their instruments, and by the night’s end there’s a jazz free for all. You can never tell what’s going to happen musically, but it’s never dull!



 

Trish MacEnulty is the author of several novels, a memoir, and a short story collection. She believes in the healing power of all the arts and provides workshops in writing & recovery. Learn more at TrishMacEnulty.com.


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