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Trumpeter's lofty goal? Bringing history to life

Lofton says genre has tough road in city rooted in rock, others

Michael Barnes
Jeff Lofton has played all around the Austin club scene, moving to the city with his wife just three years ago.

Did jazz trumpeter Jeff Lofton really immigrate to Austin just three years ago?

It seems like he and his writer/publicist wife, Dean Lofton, along with collaborating artists, have permeated local jazz for ages. Without the benefit of multiple jazz clubs - the Elephant Room remains Austin's mainstay - or dedicated radio stations - KAZI, KOOP and KUT do their parts - the Loftons make it seem like there's an actual jazz scene out here.

Not just to diehards. The trumpeter, whose dreadlocks look like they could furnish enough yarn for a toasty sweater, appears in steak houses, bistros, bars, hotel lobbies and icehouses. Alone, with trios, quartets or quintets, he plays benefits and festivals - such as the first-rate Jazz at St. James Festival - and trophy venues like Antone's, Lucky Lounge and now One World Theatre.

At that West Austin artistic hub, he will again assay his grandest project to date - "Jeff Lofton's 1950s Miles Davis Tribute" - on Saturday. As he did at the Victory Grill and Elephant Room, he and sax player Alex Coke, pianist Morris Nelms on piano, bassist Chris Jones and drummer Masumi Jones on drums will attempt to replicate the sound from the jazz great's cool and blue periods. (Singer Kellye Gray will make a guest appearance.) The show will resurrect music pioneered by the Miles Davis Quintet and will include selections from the album, "Kind of Blue," which turned 50 last year.

Why has Austin embraced Lofton, 43, so thoroughly, that he can brave such a nervy self-assignment?

"There's a culture of appreciation for musical artistry here," says Lofton, who was born in Germany but grew up in a South Carolina military family. "Not just what sounds good and looks good, but: `Do you have the actual technique and are you saying something musically?' "

Lofton has connected with local music critics and record buyers as well, though they might not know that his wind and control are amplified by a missing front tooth, the result of a front-yard accident at age 10 or 11 that left it shattered, but oddly not painful.

Lofton's first gig after moving to Austin from Columbia, S.C., was the no-frills Club 40 on East 12th Street.

"They paid just enough for me to hire a drummer," he says. "Someone else provided left-hand keyboard. But the audience was very receptive, as all Austin audiences have been."

Despite monumental efforts from folks like pianist Coke, Tina Marsh, Harold McMillan, Pamela Hart, Hannibal Lokumbe, Reed Clemons and even Marc Katz -who opened the ambitious but short-lived Top of the Marc in the 1990s - as well as the legions of Victory Grill revivalists, no musicians, promoters or club owners have managed to make jazz a pivotal Austin genre.

"Well, there's so much of a deep-rooted connection with blues, country and, of course, rock, here," Lofton says. "When you are blessed with so much of that, it's hard for a different music to emerge."

In one of those serendipitous Austin moments, as we spoke about the relative dearth of jazz, Miles Davis' "Blue in Green" drifted over the speakers at Snack Bar on South Congress Avenue. The insinuating notes competed with a loud scrubbing from a service area. "She could at least do it on the one," joked Lofton.

"Miles Davis has always been a big influence on me," he says. "I've wondered if we could pull off a show that would really recreate his sound. For one thing, you have to get exactly the right piano: Bebop, Bud Powell-influenced, mixed with blocked chords and the harmonic bounce of stride, ragtime and earlier styles. So you'll hear the Fats Waller, Art Tatum and Bud Powell."

Lofton is not alone in thinking that Davis' 1950s sound permanently affected the way we hear music in general, including standards like "Bye, Bye Blackbird," "My Funny Valentine" and "I Thought about You." But though artists often dip into Davis' later periods, including his fusion phase, they treat his earlier work as sacrosanct.

"He's a sacred cow," he says. "The truth is, the music is difficult to emulate, and musicians feel it's set in stone."

Before returning to the subject of Davis, Lofton and I detour into a routine complaint for Austin jazz lovers: talking. We shared anecdotes about clueless clubgoers who chatter at the top of their lungs, even during hushed instrumental interludes.

"In Austin, people will go to a classical concert and won't talk at all," he says "They don't realize jazz is another high art that takes a lot of concentration, especially with 13 conversations going on."

Are Austin audiences just the worst at this kind of interference?

"It's not so much worse here, it's that clubs don't (discourage) it," he says. "In a New York club, they'd say: `You can hold it down, or pay your tab and never come back.'"

Lofton won't have to worry about aural interruptions at One World, where audiences treat music with a reverence appropriate for Davis.

"If you don't re-create his sound, it goes out of mainstream consciousness," Lofton says. "And of any American music, this should be in the mainstream consciousness. Miles Davis should be as popular in this country as Michael Jackson."


Jeff Lofton's 1950s Miles Davis Tribute

When: 9 p.m. Saturday

Where: One World Theatre, 7701 Bee CaveRoad

Cost: $20-$55