Nashville Jazz Workshop still expanding

Wednesday, September 9, 2009 at 5:08pm
Donna McElroy, special guest for the Nashville Jazz Workshop Fall Fundraiser, is a former Nashville music professional, Fisk graduate and former Jubilee Singer. She is currently on the faculty of Berklee College of Music in Boston.

Roger Spencer, co-founder with Lori Mechem of the Nashville Jazz Workshop, remembers just how difficult things were when they held their first fund-raiser in 2001.

“It was a week after 9/11,” Spencer recalled. “People weren’t exactly in a festive or giving mood at the time. That was kind of rough.”

But the workshop has survived and emerged over that time into the premier music teaching and performance entity of its type in the region. Indeed both Spencer (bass) and Mechem (piano), accomplished players with extensive experience in all types of frameworks and settings, see the workshop as a counter and alternative to problems that can emerge from taking either a completely academic or totally work-oriented approach to jazz improvisation.

“We both knew the problems that can result from taking a strictly academic view when it comes to jazz,” Spencer said. “At the same time, we were very much interested in this being a learning and teaching environment. So it was important that we got top playing professionals to teach classes, people who know what it’s really like trying to make a living playing jazz, yet also know all the theory and technique. We feel like we’ve achieved a good synthesis.”

This Sunday’s ninth annual fall fundraiser gets underway at the Limelight at 4 p.m. This year’s guest artist is former Nashville recording performer and current Berklee College of Music faculty member Donna McElroy. A former Fisk Jubilee Singer, McElroy is now acclaimed nationwide as a gifted and knowledgeable jazz vocal instructor as well as a talented singer in her own right.

But the program also includes 3rd Coast Vocals, an ensemble with premier jazz singing stylists Jeff Hall, Sandra Dudley, Christina Watson and Mark Stephens. Also on the bill is an NJW all-star ensemble that includes Rod McGaha, Rahsaan Barber, Chester Thompson, Joe Davidian and Jim Ferguson. This year’s event features a live and silent auction featuring small works, including a collection of 5 x 7 canvases with paintings by major area artists produced especially for the event. Artist R. Lafayette Mitchell will do a live painting that will be sold during the auction. The ticket price includes complimentary wine from 4-5 p.m. and food by Monell’s.

The Nashville Jazz Workshop has been housed at 1312 Adams St., located in the Neuhoff Complex in East Germantown, since 2000. The current nonprofit entity evolved from the Nashville Jazz Institute, which began in 1988. What was once a small enterprise with a handful of students is now the centerpiece for jazz activity in Middle Tennessee, with classes four nights a week (Monday-Thursday), a twice-monthly performance series (Snap on 2 and 4), plus special concerts, visual art exhibits and other special events. The workshop’s growth mirrors that of the music in Nashville on the whole, something Spencer says is impressive in some ways, but problematic in others.

“As an art form, the music is doing well,” he said. “There’s a lot of support from the standpoint of people enjoying it, more great players coming here all the time and more general interest. When people like Dr. Matthew White, an outstanding trumpeter who just got his doctorate, or Evan Cobb, a wonderful tenor saxophonist who just earned his master’s degree, move here it says a lot about the city.”

“But the main problem is there aren’t enough places where you can actually play the music,” Spencer continued. “F. Scott’s does a fantastic job in what they provide, but that’s still just one site. There need to be full-time venues dedicated to the music. That’s the key thing that’s missing.”

There are currently 18-20 classes offered over every six-week period at the Nashville Jazz Workshop. Some are for players; others are designed to foster community appreciation for the music and aimed at non-performers. But the key feature in the performance classes hinges on the concept of apprenticeship, with seasoned professionals regularly offering counsel, guidance and advice to others about the jazz world and life.

“As far as the Nashville Jazz Workshop, we’ve been thrilled by the growth and the embrace of the community, especially since we relocated in this building,” Spencer concluded. “But we still face the challenge all the time of increasing public awareness and visibility of the workshop and what we do. Every time we do a concert or a Snap, there will be at least three or four people who tell us they didn’t know we were here, when it’s been nine years. So that just lets us know that we still have work to do in terms of growing and getting the word out about everything that the Nashville Jazz Workshop does throughout the year.”

Major sponsors for this event include Nashville Lifestyles, Limelight, Monell’s and WMOT Radio. Corporate and patron sponsorship is also available, plus VIP packages. For more information about either Sunday’s event or the Nashville Jazz Workshop, call 242-5299 or visit

What: The ninth annual Nashville Jazz Workshop Fall Fundraiser
When: 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Limelight, 201 Woodland St.
Cost: $50
Info: 242-5299,