Where jazz comes out to play in Bremerton

Musician 2nd Class Jay Gillespie of Navy Band Northwest performs a guest rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in his off-duty hours with the Ray Ohls Trio at the Hi-Fidelity Lounge Feb. 3. - Lynsi Burton/staff photo
Musician 2nd Class Jay Gillespie of Navy Band Northwest performs a guest rendition of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” in his off-duty hours with the Ray Ohls Trio at the Hi-Fidelity Lounge Feb. 3.
— image credit: Lynsi Burton/staff photo

A Google search of “Thursday in Bremerton” brought Sherman Anderson to the Hi-Fidelity Lounge’s jazz night last week.

Having moved to Bremerton a week earlier and grown up listening to jazz, he was looking for something to do.

“I know good music when I hear it,” Anderson said, nodding toward the Bremerton-based Ray Ohls Trio on stage. “They’re good.”

It was the Ray Ohls Trio’s first performance at Hi-Fidelity after a couple months’ hiatus. Having performed every Thursday for almost a year, the bar switched to a once-monthly jazz schedule, hoping less frequent performances would draw larger crowds.

During banter between songs, regulars who came to the shows last year welcomed the band back.

“You guys missed each other, didn’t you?” one patron asked.

“We missed you, too,” drummer Tim Malland said.

In a town known more for its rock and punk scene, local jazz musicians are trying to build a crowd at the Bremerton shows. They are performing regularly now, and trying to carve out a niche where nightlife is scant.

The struggling jazz scene is not because of a lack of talent. In addition to the Ray Ohls Trio, jazz musician Mark Lewis also lives in Bremerton. He performs alto saxophone and flute almost every Friday at El Coral restaurant on Fourth Street and he’s recorded and produced at least six albums in his Burwell Street studio, with his latest coming out Friday. Having performed everywhere from San Francisco to the Netherlands, his work is internationally known.

Though Bremerton has its share of talented jazz musicians and was once home to Quincy Jones, fans and musicians say jazz fans aren’t heading to shows.

Richard Pease came to the Hi-Fidelity every Thursday last year and his arrival at this month’s show was hailed by those on stage and in the audience — his reputation as a die-hard jazz fan preceded him.

But Pease’s sources for good jazz are running low. He used to attend the Pacific Avenue Jazz House every week when it briefly hosted jazz shows a few years ago. When the Hi-Fidelity took a break from jazz, he had nowhere to go.

“There’s not even good jazz on the radio anymore,” he said, adding that Seattle’s smooth jazz station, 98.9 KWJZ, switched to a contemporary format in December. “I was hitting Youtube.”

Because he works on weekends, it’s not easy for Pease to attend the jazz shows in Seattle, so he champions the ones in Kitsap County. He’s handed out fliers for local shows and has put a sign on his car saying he’s at jazz night at Hi-Fidelity. His thinking is that if people know what they are missing, they will turn out.

“People don’t know about it,” he said.

Frank Mello has lived in Bremerton for 15 years and attends Seattle shows at Jazz Alley often. But this month’s Hi-Fidelity show was the first Bremerton jazz he’s been to.

There are jazz fans in Bremerton, but the challenge is to get them to come to the shows, he said.

“There are jazz aficionados in this town, but when people are settled, it’s hard to bring them out,” Mello said. “It’s tough, it’s a tough community.”

The rock musicians in Bremerton tend to eclipse the jazz that is available, he said.

“It’s just not a hip place, I’m sorry,” he said, laughing.

What jazz musicians say is needed is more publicity and a more motivated fan base.

“There are a lot of people here in Kitsap County that would come out if they knew about it,” said Ray Ohls, pianist for the Ray Ohls Trio and music teacher at Olympic College. “I just think people don’t go out as much as they used to to see live music. First, you gotta get them to know about it. Second, you gotta twist their arm to come out.”

Musicians also say that residents are not drawn to local acts.

Mark Lewis used to perform at Jazz Alley in Seattle when he lived in San Francisco, but after he moved to Bremerton, the club would no longer book him because it wouldn’t attract a crowd for a local musician.

“People are shy in the Northwest,” Lewis said. “Here we have a tendency to think that what he have is not as good as everyone else.”

On the other hand, big names can sell out, as demonstrated when Branford Marsalis packed the Admiral Theatre in 2007.

Lewis said that’s because people are more comfortable with more recognized names, but Ohls said jazz fans can just as easily come to local shows, and for less money.

“I thought, ‘Geez, where did all these people come from?’” Ohls said of the Marsalis crowd. “Where were they when I needed them?”

Also a challenge is a lack of venues.

“The problem with jazz is there are a lot of jazz musicians and not a lot of places to play,” Ohls said.

Rick White, bassist for the Ray Ohls Trio and director of the Olympic College jazz band, said bar owners don’t tend to view jazz as a moneymaker.

“I do believe there’s an audience,” White said. “I just don’t think the venues trust it enough to fill the seats.”

Despite the limits, young talents in Bremerton are still trying to establish themselves. Navy Band Northwest’s jazz band, based in Bangor, performs throughout the country, with some of its musicians jamming with the Ray Ohls Trio at Hi-Fidelity jazz nights. Olympic College students also sit in with Ray Ohls.

Ian Jones graduated from Olympic College last year and plays tenor saxophone with his big band, Rude and Unprofessional, throughout Kitsap County. He’s performed at the Charleston in Bremerton, the Bainbridge Island Community Center and the Bremerton Elks Club, as well as the Hi-Fidelity

The local jazz scene can be a quiet one, he said.

“If you’re not aware of it, it can be invisible,” Jones said.

Younger people are not always exposed to jazz, often making the jazz crowd a bit older, he said.

“Most people who weren’t in high school band haven’t listened to it and don’t appreciate it,” Jones said.

Brandon Day, an upright bass player in Olympic College’s jazz band, came from an area with even less jazz. Originally from Lewiston, Idaho, he was offered a music scholarship at Olympic College and has performed throughout the area with about four different groups in the past four years. He’s played shows at Hi-Fidelity and the Global Bean in Silverdale and has an upcoming performance at Forza Coffee in Silverdale March 26.

“The fact that there is anything here is awesome,” he said.

In general, Bremerton’s scene is not much different from any other town’s. The trick is making sure it’s known.

“There’s always jazz in every town you go,” he said. “It may not be as obvious, but there’s always jazz and there’s always an audience.”

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