It’s a quiet Tuesday night at Benoit’s Wine Bar. At the bar, a couple seems to be enjoying a date, while on stage the musicians of the 4th Street Jazz Project are getting set up.
In the corner I find John Baker sitting on the couch. As the band’s leader, I was there to ask him what the band was about.
But bassist Michael Liggins decided to chime in first. “We were all born as poor black children and we all changed to white as we grew,” he said. “We were all educated at Brown University.”
“Brown? That’s a women’s university!” replied Baker.
“That’s why we went there,” said Mike.
OK. Now for the real story.
The 4th Street Jazz Project was formed just over two years ago by a group of local musicians who were looking for an outlet to play music in a small-band format. The band consists of Baker on guitar, Liggins on bass, Cathy Cameron-Suchy on trumpet, Carl Laurence on trombone, Sylvain Hebert on saxophone, and, on this night, Steve Earle on percussion (no, not that Steve Earle).
They had played together in various bands such as the Swing Monkeys and for community musicals and had been talking about doing something smaller together for a while, said Baker. After playing together for the community musical Chicago, they decided the time was right.
“The whole musical scene was opening up here and there were more opportunities available and this is what we wanted to do,” said Baker. “We talked about for a long time and we decided we wanted to do it.”
The band’s first show was open mic night at the Last Drop. Baker wrote out chord charts for three songs and off they went. “We didn’t get booed so we decided to keep doing it.”
They played a second time at open mic night. Keep in mind, this was the winter of 2009-10, where open mic night was attracting a packed house of rowdy skiers and it wasn’t uncommon to see people crowd-surfing.
“The second time was so frightening we’ve never been back. It was amazing,” said Baker. “They had 400 people in there, it was wall to wall. It was pretty crazy.”
The goal of the 4th Street Jazz Project from the start was to play traditional jazz, though they’ve added some Latin music as well. The philosophy is to “bring jazz to people because it’s a little different.
“We wanted to have the band where you could sit and talk across the table and understand each other. We didn’t want to be loud and intrusive,” said Baker. “There’s lots of music in town but we’re a little different because we’re a horn-based band rather than a vocal or guitar-based band.”
Baker himself is an accomplished musician. He started playing guitar at the age of nine and was playing jazz at 15. He attended music school at the University of Toronto, University of Victoria and the University of Eastern Washington; and his abilities have taken him around the world. In 1978 he moved to Revelstoke where he took up the post as the school’s band teacher.
I asked him what he liked about playing in the 4th Street Jazz Project. He cited the quality of the musicians he played with.
“They’re all multi-instrumentalist, which means they each play at least three instruments,” he said, before running through what everyone could play (a list that’s too long for this article).
“The musicality and the musicianship in this group is outstanding.”
The band has played at a variety of venues in Revelstoke, ranging from the aforementioned Last Drop, private parties, street festivals, weddings and more; but Benoit’s is their favourite spot to play. “For us it’s a very good place to play, a very intimate room.”
The band is planning to record this fall and is contemplating a Christmas CD that would be sold to raise money for the food bank. Next summer it is looking to play some jazz festivals, such as the ones in Kaslo and Penticton.
“People like jazz,” said Baker. “A lot of people are afraid of it because they think it’s going to be manic and squirly and 20-minute solos. We don’t do that. We try to accommodate the listener as much as we can.”
The 4th Street Jazz Project plays the Summer Music Fest in Grizzly Plaza on Friday, Aug. 31, at 6:30 p.m. Look for them at various venues around town in the coming months.