Sunday, April 5, 2009

Arts feature: Susan Merritt, South Florida's first lady of jazz

Susan Merritt, jazz impresaria.
(Illustration by Pat Crowley)

By Bill Meredith

WEST PALM BEACH -- A strange thing happened to bassist and North Carolina native Susan Merritt when she came south for a gig in 1982 -- her working vacation turned into a relocation.

And that eventually transformed her into a Floridian, jazz musician, club owner, and president of the non-profit Jazz Arts Music Society (JAMS) of Palm Beach.

"I got hired by a company to play for six weeks at a dinner theater in Melbourne," she says, her Southern accent still palpable. "I'd started out playing bluegrass on acoustic bass in 1976, and switched to electric to play crossover country shows on the Busch Gardens circuit. I got into jazz when I moved down here, and one thing sort of led to another."

One such thing was embarking on a series of partnerships with Marty Campfield, vice president of JAMS. But like many arts organizations, theirs is wincing from the current economic pinch.

"We're down in membership; down in attendance," Merritt says. "No one wants to spend money in this economy. But there's a core group of people, many of them around 60, who come to these concerts. They're pretty open-minded, although more likely to come out for names they recognize. But they're devoted."

JAMS members were devoted to recent shows by pianists Shelly Berg (with multi-reed guest Ken Peplowski) and Johnny O'Neal (with guest trombonist Wycliffe Gordon), each at the Harriet Himmel Theater in CityPlace. But when Merritt threw a curve at the Cuillo Centre for the Arts in February by featuring West African guitarist Lionel Loueke, an integral part of keyboardist Herbie Hancock's band, the 377-seat venue drew only a fraction of capacity.

"That was embarrassing," Merritt says. "Those guys sure played as if there was a full house, but they may remember South Florida for the wrong reasons. I don't regret that show musically, but I learned a lesson. I'm not going to take any more chances unless the economy improves. Or unless someone else decides to pay for it."

Randy Ward, a bassist from West Palm Beach who’s performed in JAMS concerts, said without Merritt, “there wouldn’t be nearly as many local jazz shows.”

"I don't think most people realize how much work she and Marty do to promote jazz in the area,” he said.

Merritt and Campfield, who's also the drummer in the Susan Merritt Trio, have partnered in various rhythm sections since 1987. With rotating pianists Mark Marineau, Alan Palanker and Jim Ryan, plus guest soloists, the group appears every Friday at Fire Rock Restaurant in downtown West Palm Beach. Merritt's trio also plays every Saturday at the Living Room Lounge of the Four Seasons Resort in Palm Beach.

Susan Merritt first came to Florida in 1982
as a bassist for a dinner-theater gig.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

The bassist still lives within walking distance of the site of the former club, the Jazz Showcase, that she and Campfield ran from 1993-1996 in West Palm Beach. Future electric jam band stars Medeski, Martin & Wood played a blazing, mostly acoustic show there in 1993. The following year, bassist Victor Wooten, drumming brother Roy Wooten and saxophonist Paul McCandless hosted a memorable jam after appearing earlier in the day with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones at SunFest.

"That club may have been a little ahead of its time," Merritt says.

Time runs out on most South Florida jazz clubs. O'Hara's Jazz and Blues Cafe celebrated its 19th anniversary of live music last summer at its Fort Lauderdale location, which has since shut down. Plans are in the works for a new Fort Lauderdale site, but the second O’Hara’s location in Hollywood now employs deejays. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval's club, a beautiful venue in the Deauville Beach Resort on Miami Beach, closed in 2008 after only two years of operation.

Another South Beach jazz mainstay, the Van Dyke Cafe, is presenting live music upstairs seven nights a week -- but it's not all jazz.

"We still have jazz, but we also have Latin, R&B and blues acts," says Upstairs at the Van Dyke manager Alex Bogni. "I'm a jazz lover, but the variety has opened new doors. Between that, our great location on Lincoln Road, and the fact that the building is a landmark that was built in 1908, we're always full."

The Jazz Showcase had one more run in 1997 in the Carefree Theater complex in West Palm Beach, highlighted by the appearance of guitarist John Scofield. Merritt decided to continue to perform; resume teaching piano like she had in North Carolina, and eventually start JAMS.

"I never envisioned starting an arts organization down here," she says. "I never even planned to stay. I came because I could sight-read music on dinner shows."

On a recent Friday, Merritt, Campfield, Ryan and guest saxophonist Jim Hayward played a variety of jazz standards for a sizeable crowd of diners at Fire Rock.

"We're there from 7-10 there on Fridays and Sundays," Merritt says. "The early hours suit lots of listeners who are a little older, and the people tend to spend their money on food, not just drinks. You have to be very careful now with drinking and driving."

Merritt's band also has a loyal Saturday following at the Four Seasons, where it's played since 1999, but the weekly overflow crowds appear when the trio returns to Fire Rock to host the interactive "Sunday Jazz Jam Sessions."

"It's a zoo," she says. "We average five to seven vocalists who want to sit in per night, and then there's the guitarists, drummers, bassists and horn players. It's hard to get everyone in."

"Those jam sessions give students, and younger people in general, opportunities to play with older musicians," Ward says. "That's a good way to learn."

Unfortunately, the popularity of those jams hasn't been shared by JAMS, now in its 10th year. Merritt once scheduled 12 concerts during the organization's November-through-April seasons; now it's down to six. She hopes this season's final show, by singing pianist Dena DeRose and her trio on April 28 at the Harriet Himmel Theater, will give JAMS momentum for 2009-2010. She also wishes jazz was taken more seriously in South Florida, by several different camps.

"There's been very little area media coverage, either in print or on the radio," Merritt says. "It seems like both are chasing after the youth market, and think that jazz can't apply. Jazz has to be recognized as a true art form, and get the same respect and recognition as other cultural art forms. And people still balk at a $5 cover charge, let alone a $35 concert ticket, even if the price helps pay quality musicians. South Florida may just have too much free stuff for them to accept that."

"As for jazz education, there are plenty of students," she continues. "But where are they going to work when they get out of school? And who are they going to play for? Jazz education seems to be thriving, but it needs to develop not just musicians, but an audience.

“I'd hate to see jazz just get immersed in academia. That's not where it started, so we need to find ways to get non-musicians to appreciate it as well,” she says. “Jazz was born in clubs and small concert venues, and it needs to sustain that kind of intimacy."

Bill Meredith is a freelance writer based in South Florida who has written extensively about jazz and popular music, including for Jazziz and Jazz Times.

Trumpeter Bobby Lewis joined the Susan Merritt Trio
-- drummer Marty Campfield, bassist Merritt,
and pianist Jim Ryan -- at the Fire Rock
on Clematis Street in West Palm Beach for a recent gig.
(Photo by Katie Deits)

1 comment:

C.L.J. said...

I remember Sue and Marty from the Arts Bar, the little after-hours joint that was born out of the ashes of Actors' Repertory Company.
It originally opened as a place for the remaining acting company to have a stage, with the bar intended to cover the space's rent. We'd been doing one-act plays, open mics, and poetry readings, and then Sue and Marty came in one night after their restaurant gig, and played a set or two. Then, some of their friends came by afther their gigs to jam with each other, and soon Arts Bar was a de facto jazz and blues club, with Thursday nights showcasing Marianne Fleming, and Friday nights anchored by Bobby Tynes and Phil MacArthur and their jazz group MVP. Other nights were a random mix of musicians and acts, often Sue and Marty and a couple of their friends. The only exceptions were Sundays and Mondays, which belonged to Comedy Squad improv and a true Open Mic night.

Glad to see they're still around.