Miami Jazz Jam. We’re Jammin’…the way it should be

By Anne Tschida

altChurchill’s. Monday nights. Jazz. There’s nothing in Miami that comes close to it. Then again, almost any night at Churchill’s stands out from anything else that goes on, musically and crowd-wise, in this town. But the Jazz Jam has become a staple on the scene for years now, a time and place where young and old, musicians and aficionados come together to jam, to drink, to listen, and to be part of a subculture that Miami has never been known for. Aside from Churchill’s.

Even before you get to the door, this pub’s unique world has already made its impression. In case you’ve forgotten exactly where it is, you look for the tell-tale landmark – the double-decker British bus painted over in the colors and pattern of the Union Jack. It’s in the heart of Little Haiti, on the corner of NE 2nd Avenue and 55th Street.

Most likely, a local resident will approach you to “help” you park your car – maybe watch it, keep it safe – for a tip. Ignoring your new friend may not be the best idea, as this neighborhood can get a bit rough.

At the front door, the guy with the British accent takes your $5 – or not, depending on where he is standing. And then you are in. To a place where the beers are cheap, the floors are filthy, and the bathrooms best left untested.

But after 10:00, on Monday nights, the music and the jam are unparalleled in Miami. For eight years running now. This is truly a local scene. At the front bar, the usual suspects have been there for a while, maybe playing pool at the table in the front room, or watching one of the TVs showing seemingly random programs. The bartender will likely know which beer the customer favors. The light is a little dreary, and cigarettes ubiquitous.

Back in the dark interior, however, the ambiance is different. There are tables with candles and tablecloths, and an audience starting to trickle in to soak up the band, or eventually to play with them. And any one of them might be drinking a whiskey on the rocks rather than an ale. For those more familiar with the British pub’s metal and punk noisemakers – the most common form of music at Churchill’s – it will come as a pleasant surprise when mellow jazz (sometimes played from sheet music, really!) emanates from the stage.

Although it is not set in stone, in general the Jazz night lately starts off with Fernando Ulibarri and his guitar, leading a group with saxophonist Ricky Jackson, drummer Rodolfo Zuniga, pianist Maurico Quaro, and bassist Mike Bordelon. Who knows if the crowd in the front even hears what is playing on the stage, but those sitting and listening are reverent and enthusiastic about the quality sounds they are hearing. Live music in Miami does not often mean good music, so this night is again a world unto its own.

No, it’s not like sitting in the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts listening – or tapping your foot – to a jazz great. It’s more down-home than that, interactive and freestyle, while still keeping a level of integrity to the session.

By 11:30, the tables are starting to fill up. Again, it is a local scene so many in attendance have heard this night many times before – they are jazz fans, not interloping visitors. People start arriving with instruments, and with a handshake or hug for familiar faces.

Up on stage, Costa Rican natives Ulibarri and Zuniga are heating up. This group has played together across continents, including performances at Carnegie Hall in New York City. They are all classically trained and professional musicians. Bordelon, for instance, studies with Arturo Sandoval’s bassist. The audience knows this, and await riffs and solos from their particular favorites. And clap or cheer when they happen.

It’s Churchill’s after all. The groups can change, and the order they play might change, along with the members, according to the night. ‘Round midnight, the atmosphere changes again. At some point “Piano Bob” might make an appearance, or another musician. Then, more often than not, bassist-guitarist Mike Wood and his trio open up the jam session after 12:00. That’s when those who had arrived with their instruments join in the jam. Some might be music students, or old-time players – it doesn’t really matter as everyone is now in the smoke-filled den for one reason: Jazz.

Or maybe for a little more than that. “Mondays are the best night at Churchill’s because of all the locals – the best locals in Miami,” says a long-time Monday night fan Juan Rodriguez. “I remember just hanging out and drinking with lots of fun and interesting people… and excellent music.” As the jam continues into the beginning of a new day, the crowd reaches its peak. Jazz night doesn’t sleep.

Part of the reason is that Miami has so few live music outlets, and virtually no other one dedicated to jazz. So young aficionados trying to practice up on some skills don’t really care about what time of day or night it is. Said one University of Miami student, who says he comes to Monday at Churchill’s once a month, there isn’t something similar to this until you get to New Orleans.

On this particular Monday after midnight, Renee Fiallos took to the stage (as she often does), playing the flute. She has mastered numerous woodwind instruments, and can sing in a multitude of languages (including Medieval French and Persian – yes, it’s true). She directs the ensemble Generica, which has produced three CDs. In the end, she’s another eclectic talent jamming into the morning hours. At some point those on-stage and off-stage morph, with people moving in and out of the room and the stage. By 2:00, all the fish & chips have long ago been eaten, and even the hardy regulars are looking ready to call it a night.

But that’s okay, it will all happen again the following Monday. Outside, on the back patio, there has been an evening of Theatre de Underground – a combination of poetry and acoustic performances, that draws its own crowd. As everyone starts to say goodbyes and exit, the special Churchill’s atmosphere again becomes apparent. The bathrooms are really unpleasant at this point, and the smell in general not much better. Outside, the person who has been looking after your car…. is a different person, but he still wants an extra tip. The parking lot is muddy.

But would we want it any other way? A sterile club on South Beach? A bar that charges $15 to enter and even more for a beer? Real valet parking, not the one-dollar kind? And most importantly, people playing a gig ‘cause it’s simply a gig? Or playing because they love it, and the audience loves it, and shows up every week to prove it? The answer is obvious. Cleaned up, non-jam jazz seems to go against the grain of the genre itself. Churchill’s delivers it raw and smokey and improvisational – the way it should be.

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