A Resurgence of Jazz in Buffalo

By Ed Healy

Published on

There was a time when Buffalo was known as one of the hippest jazz cities in the country, when clubs like the Pine Grill, the Royal Arms and the Little Harlem Hotel were home to a thriving community of local musicians and touring bands fronted by a who’s who of jazz legends, including Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and a host of others. The music and the clubs that supported it were at their peak in the 1950s and Buffalo was an essential stop on the national circuit.

But times and tastes changed, and Buffalo barely hung on to this legacy of musical prosperity. What had been a thriving scene of small clubs was reduced by the 1990s to workshops and jam sessions at the Colored Musicians Club and intermittent shows at SUNY Buffalo, Buffalo State and Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center. There was a pulse, but the patient desperately needed an infusion.

George Caldwell / Photo: JazzBuffalo

That pulse began to quicken when the Art of Jazz debuted in 1999 at what was then known as the Albright-Knox Art Gallery (now the Buffalo AKG Art Museum), the brainchild of producer Bruce Eaton who had run the Artpark Jazz Festival in nearby Lewiston. The Art of Jazz series featured a diverse mix of the best jazz artists in the world, from established legends to rising stars. A typical season might include masters like Charles Lloyd, Bill Frisell, Carla Bley and Dave Holland and newcomers such as the Bad Plus, Vijay Iyer, Jason Moran and Cecile McLorin Salvant. That mixture has proven to be a winning formula throughout the ensuing decades, albeit one that has become more challenging as the jazz giants of decades ago pass from the scene. Jazz has also become much more international in scope and finding the young lions who can fill the shoes of their illustrious predecessors requires significant homework and legwork on the part of current series producer Tony Zambito.

“It’s undoubtedly a significant challenge,” Zambito says, “requiring plenty of listening to new music, staying updated on emerging talent through sources like Downbeat magazine, entertaining offers from agencies, seeking out intriguing projects, going to occasional concerts in New York City, and, yes, taking some risks. While stepping into Bruce’s rather sizable shoes is a challenge, he graciously paved the way for me during our close relationship working together over a couple of years. My goal is to sustain the legacy he initiated, striving for the highest level of excellence.”

Photo: JazzBuffalo

One thing that makes Zambito’s job a little easier is the reputation of the Art of Jazz series and its home at the AKG.

“One of the most enjoyable experiences is watching the jazz musicians as they enter the auditorium for their initial sound check,” says Zambito. “Regardless of how well you might have described it beforehand, nothing truly prepares them for that first look. The reception we receive is typically overwhelmingly positive. Jazz musicians, especially those from New York City, do talk, and indeed, they share experiences. Most love the degree of intimacy the auditorium offers. And the fact that it is a non-club venue.”

Jazz musicians tend to be very interested in the visual arts, Zambito points out, and visiting performers have spoken of how inspired they are by the art at the museum. There’s also no denying the auditorium is a beautiful room for live jazz. Its acoustics, sight lines, and architecture all are key ingredients that make for a great live performance. 

Zambito has tried to build on the success of the Art of Jazz series by creating new events and booking new venues for jazz shows in recent years under the auspices of the organization he founded, JazzBuffalo.

“Our aspiration has been to transform jazz into a dynamic, community-oriented experience accessible to many, bringing it out of the shadows and into more public settings,” Zambito says. “For instance, the JazzBrunch Sundays at the Terrace at Delaware Park is in its sixth year and a big part of the experience. We also want to create accessible opportunities for jazz musicians to remain in Buffalo so that our community has the best of both worlds – wonderful music experiences and superb talent.”

It may not be the glory days of the 1950s, but Buffalo is experiencing a real resurgence when it comes to the music that’s been called America’s greatest contribution to world culture. From concerts in the auditorium and plaza at Seneca One to the new “Art Meets Jazz” concerts at the Hunt Gallery in the Brisbane Building to the long running brunch shows at the Terrace, there are more jazz concerts on the region’s cultural calendar than at any time in recent memory. Tony Zambito and JazzBuffalo deserve great thanks for stirring this cultural cocktail.

“I’m an evangelist for making Buffalo a better place where music, arts, and culture are accessible for everyone to enjoy,” Zambito says. “I cannot express enough what it means to witness the joy on people’s faces during some of the larger, free, community-oriented events such as Jazz at Richardson, Jazz on the Plaza, and the recent Buffalo Jazz Festival. Witnessing all the happiness makes all the hard effort worthwhile.”

For more information & events visit jazzbuffalo.org

Ed Healy headshot

Ed Healy

Ed Healy is the former vice president of marketing for Visit Buffalo Niagara.