When: Sat., Aug. 19, 7 & 10 p.m. 2017
The Triangle jazz scene is energized as never before, but in the early seventies, when Stanley Baird cofounded the Department of Jazz Studies at North Carolina Central University with eminent trumpeter Donald Byrd, there was very little jazz scene to speak of—no venues, and worse, few who cared to play it. In steering the program, Baird's emphasis on performing was well beyond the norm among the country's fifteen or so jazz studies programs. Baird sought to ensure that his charges had their chops down along with the requisite skills in arrangement, history, and music business economics, and the impressive array of pros who have come out of the program attest to Baird's wisdom.
Baird has kept the emphasis on performing in his own life. He put together the band that bears his name in 1991 and together they have issued seven records. This show celebrates the latest, Big Daddy, a quiet storm from beginning to end. But it seems Baird's heart is in the spark and interplay of live musicians. Over the years, whether sharing stages with an impressive number of legends—Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, and Otis Redding among them—or touring with his ensemble in the U.S., Europe, and Asia, Baird is dedicated to live music. In the process he's become nothing less than an emissary for America's indigenous art form.
While Baird grew up admiring the saxophone styles of venerable figures like Gene Ammons and Cannonball Adderley, he is hardly a purist; in fact, the kind of jazz he plays with his Baird Band is an extremely approachable brand, reveling in the kind of lugubrious bedroom jams and funky workouts that purists might reject. But the accessibility is what has made his ensemble of deft accompanists such a popular draw. Guitarist James Perry, bassist Christopher "Spanky" Thompson, drummer Carl Gerald, and a pair of keyboardists, Glenn Williams and Jonathan Perry, fall into silky slow jams or sprightly funk with effortless precision, providing subtle fills while vocalist Connie Rodgers adds smooth vocals on covers like the sublime "Betcha By Golly Wow." Baird's fluid sax work anchors the sound in jazz but the R & B and Latin elements are crucial, as are the lilt of West Indian rhythms, which Baird fell in love as a music teacher in St. Croix. A lot of jazz can feel intimidating to those whose ears are trained on pop music, but Baird's intoxicating blend is the kind that puts smiles on faces.—David Klein