Once upon a time, Las Vegas was a mecca for musicians. It was the rare place where you could actually make a decent living off of sticks, strings or horn. They may have earned their paychecks playing behind distinctly unadventurous acts such as Andy Williams or the McGuire sisters, but most musicians came from a jazz background and, once they were off the clock, it was to jazz they returned.
But, of course, times have changed. We’ve become the DJ capital of the world, and jazz is something that seems isolated to brunches and the occasional cabaret. Pogo’s, the venerable West Side dive that featured steaming jam sessions from old-school musicians—some of whom had played the stages of the Copa Room or the Sands Lounge—shuttered years ago. When the Aladdin was the new Aladdin before it became Planet Hollywood, it briefly featured an elegant little outpost of New York’s legendary Blue Note Jazz club, which was lost somewhere in the property’s confused and eventually abandoned identity. Countless other less-storied spots have opened and closed over the years.
But our town is still full of musicians and those musicians still like to play jazz, even if it’s not always just where you’d expect. The ’70s time capsule that is the Dispensary Lounge hosts a variety of combos on weekends, often featuring staff and students from UNLV’s fine music program, while the funky little cottage that is the German-American Social Club has been known to offer “vintage entertainment” jazz sessions on Tuesdays. And it’s no surprise that such outposts of retro Vegas as the Bootlegger Bistro and Italian American Social Club have been known to put a little Basie or Billie on the menu.
Even as we acknowledge its storied past, jazz shouldn’t be something we occasionally pull out of a time capsule. New Orleans’ legendary Preservation Hall Jazz Band has played our city a few times, and their recent gig at the Brooklyn Bowl gave a fine example of what—and who—jazz can look like in the 21st century. The band itself crosses generations, with an eighty-something saxophone player swinging alongside a 30ish trombone player. It also crosses genres, as was proven not only by their setlist, but also by their audience. Rockabilly kids were swing dancing with theatrical vigor to the Fats Domino covers; jam band types swayed and shook their long hair to improvised solos, and soul fans roared approval to a funky, tuba-heavy Jackson 5 reimagining. It was the kind of mixed, enthusiastic audience that any band would relish. Perhaps the situation in a rock-oriented venue made things feel a bit looser and seem a bit more open to those who might not necessarily go to Cabaret Jazz at The Smith Center.
As éminence grise of the Las Vegas arts community Dave Hickey (whose father was a jazz musician) once wrote that “jazz presumes that it would be nice if the four of us—simpatico dudes that we are—while playing this complicated song together, might somehow be free and autonomous as well.” A place where things get complicated but you can still be free: That’s jazz. Sounds more than a little like Las Vegas, too.