Tuning up the Bend jazz scene Businessman has brought in some of the Northwest’s best for monthly concerts By Ben Salmon / The Bulletin Published: October 26. 2008 4:00AM PST
Joe Rohrbacher’s full-time job is running his musical instrument store, Just Joe’s Music, located along Third Street just north of Powers Road in Bend. But he constantly fights the urge to pour more time into the monthly jazz concerts he has hosted in the shop for the past nine months. “I love doing the shows, and I love the music,” says Rohrbacher, 47. “It’s like a magnet.” Music seems to have been a magnet throughout Rohrbacher’s life.
Raised in Hemet, Calif., he started playing clarinet in fourth grade, moved to the saxophone to join the middle school jazz band and polished his skills at Chaffey College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif. After college, he went back to Hemet to work in a nonmusical family business, and an expansion of that business took him to Portland. There, he spent evenings checking out the jazz players in town. And when the family business came to an end, Rohrbacher decided to go to Mt. Hood Community College to “tune up” his skills. For the next five years, Rohrbacher played in bands on cruise ships, thanks to a friend who hooked him up with a gig. And when he began to long for land, he headed back to Oregon, unsure of what he’d do next. On a bit of a whim, he ended up in Bend, where he eventually latched on at the now-defunct instrument store Central Oregon Music. Rohrbacher stayed there 11 years, and when it went out of business about three years ago, he started Just Joe’s. “Being in that business, I think I found my calling,” he said. “I really enjoyed working with the students, helping them get their instruments, watching their eyes light up. It was fun. It was really rewarding.”
All along, Rohrbacher never forgot where he first learned to love jazz. “It hooked me when I was in middle school,” he said in a recent interview. “I remember it like it was yesterday, going to a performance at the high school and listening for the first time to a jazz quartet.” Therein lies the genesis for Jazz at Joe’s, the concert series Rohrbacher started in February that has brought some of Portland’s and Seattle’s best jazz players to Bend. The nature of his business — renting and selling instruments to some adults, but mostly students — means Rohrbacher works with developing players on a daily basis. And one of the best ways to nurture a developing player is to show him or her where that development can lead.
Joe Rohrbacher has been putting on jazz shows at Just Joe’s Music, his instrument rental and sales shop in Bend. “I’ve always thought about having some music up here, so students and customers can see what the end result is,” Rohrbacher said. “I feel strongly about the need for students to be able to be exposed to top pros on their instruments to give them something to see what the end result can be.” One problem: Bringing in professional players from out of town to put on an afternoon clinic for students doesn’t pay for itself. And Rohrbacher was hesitant to put together an accompanying evening show as long as local jazz club Be Bop Coffee House was hosting two jazz shows per week and struggling to survive. But when Be Bop closed its doors for good one year ago, Rohrbacher knew the time was right. So, in February, local jazz combo The Groove Merchants played a test run in Just Joe’s to see how the room sounded. Providing a quality venue was of the utmost importance, Rohrbacher said. “If I’m going to ask musicians to come over, I want to make sure they have an environment that’s cool,” he said. “(During the test run), the room sounded great, the music was great, the audience response was great. I thought, ‘OK, now I have the confidence to really go out and court the top professionals to come in for the job.’”
Here’s how a Jazz at Joe’s event works: Rohrbacher clears the shop’s floor and sets up chairs for about 40 people and tables, complete with fake candles for the evening show. He covers the windows that look out onto busy Third Street and installs colored bulbs in the overhead lights. From 4 to 5:15 p.m., the players perform for students, take questions, and talk about their music and their careers. Then, from 7 to 9 p.m., it’s a full-on jazzathon for a crowd of mostly local, adult jazz fans. Musicians who have played include some of the Northwest jazz scene’s biggest names: Tony Pacini, Phil Baker, Rob Thomas, Warren Rand, Carlton Jackson, David Evans, Tim Gilson, Ron Steen. Last weekend, Jay Thomas came down from Seattle to play. And each performer brings a band of other pros with him. Tickets to the evening performances cost $25, and the matinees cost $12.50, although Rohrbacher is on a mission to get two sponsored (read: free to students) tickets into every middle school and high school band room in Central Oregon. He’s halfway there, he said. The matinee is all about encouraging younger players, Rohrbacher said. “I remember how I felt at their age being exposed for the first time to (jazz) and the fire it lit in me, and all the good things that come out of it, and I think if it ignites the passion in just one of them, it’s all worthwhile,” he said. “(That exposure) is absolutely important, not just for helping to preserve the genre itself, but it also augments their education.”
And if the matinee is all about the youth, the evening set is aimed at those folks who miss Be Bop or just want to hear some live jazz in Bend, or both. “We’re bringing culture into our community,” Rohrbacher said. “I’m basically bringing Portland and Seattle to us.” Rohrbacher said he’s had around 150 people attend at least one concert, and the evening shows have consistently been full. Attendance at the matinees has been a bit spottier. And the whole operation isn’t necessarily a moneymaker, he said. “The thing is it’s difficult, as others have seen, to try to sustain a jazz offering (in Bend), because jazz fans have always been a real small subset of the music community,” Rohrbacher said. Even so, “it’s probably the easiest decision I make all month. I look forward to this week as soon as the last note is played at the previous performance.” The student Across the board, folks with a connection to Jazz at Joe’s seem to feel the same way.
A little evidence: Grant Caswell is 17, a junior at Bend High School, and a saxophone player in the school’s jazz band and his own out-of-school group, The Page 3 of 5 Other Side. He loves jazz so much, he’ll squeeze in a quick phone call to the local newspaper between classes to talk about it. “Living in Bend, there’s not much of a jazz scene, and Joe is kind of compensating for that, and we get to see some pretty top-of-the-line players,” he said. “I just love watching people better than me.” Caswell has attended six Jazz at Joe’s shows, and he says his own playing has improved as a result. “They inspire me, and then I practice more. Jazz is the kind of thing where the more you know, the more you can get out of listening,” he said. “So, as I get better, I’ll be like, ‘Hey, that’s a cool rhythm or lick, I’m going to go transcribe it or something.’ I keep absorbing more and more at each show I go to.”
The teacher: After you’ve heard both Caswell and Bend High School band director Craig Olson speak, you can hear the effect the teacher has had on his pupil: “Jazz is one of those things you get better at by listening,” Olson said. “For my kids in my jazz bands, I’m always preaching, ‘You’ve got to go listen. You’ve got to go see it. You’ve got to buy records.’ And to see it live is different than listening to it on a record. It puts into context … what we try to do on a daily basis.” Olson’s students have used Bend High School’s two matinee tickets each month, and the teens always come back excited about what they saw, he said. They also come back better players, whether they know it or not. “There’s a direct correlation between people who listen to a lot of jazz and how well they play in the jazz band,” Olson said. “The kids learn things by … watching people perform, and ‘How did they do that?’ and ‘How did they get through that?’ and ‘What did they do that maybe I can do in my playing?’ “What Joe is doing is great for the kids here in Bend.”
The fan: Marvin Thomas, of Bend, has attended all the Jazz at Joe’s shows but one. But it was the most recent — Seattle’s Jay Thomas Quartet last weekend — that was most special to him. Marvin, as you might have guessed, is Jay Thomas’ father. But Marvin Thomas has enjoyed all Rohrbacher’s concerts, just as he did during his frequent trips to Be Bop Coffee House. In both cases, it’s the cool, intimate feel of the space that Thomas loves. “These concerts are very much like house party jazz events (with a) very knowledgeable and attentive crowd,” he said. “The musicians know this and love playing at Joe’s.” Thomas said the gap between Be Bop’s closure and the first Just Joe’s show was a tough, dry spell for Bend’s jazz lovers, and he praised Rohrbacher for turning his love of the genre into an opportunity for others. “You can’t just talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk, and Joe does that,” he said. “He’s got it just about right: Once a month, and you’re assured it’s going to be quality music from a good group.”
The performer: David Evans has been playing tenor saxophone professionally for three decades, so he knows how to read an audience. And the audience is one of the best parts about playing at Joe’s, he said. Page 4 of 5 “It’s a hip crowd. There are people who are really into the music,” Evans said in a telephone interview while driving through Portland. “Often, a musician will perform somewhere, and you’re just glad to look out and see one person who might actually be getting what you’re doing, and it feels like a luxury to play in a room where there’s … 40 engaged, involved, intelligent listeners. To feel like (your music) is being received and appreciated is a wonderful thing.” Evans called Rohrbacher’s reconfiguration of the store into a jazz club a “miraculous transformation,” and he praised the space’s sound. And although he played Just Joe’s during one of the two summer months that Rohrbacher decided to skip the matinee, he said exposure to live jazz as a youngster in Auburn, Ala., “really made a difference” in his career path. “To see somebody do what I aspired to do — to be able to play a horn well — and for it to be somebody who was generous and willing to talk to me about it, and show me stuff,” Evans said, “that was just enormous in encouraging me to continue playing.”
Back at Just Joe’s, Rohrbacher has seen the same kind of influence happening at his events. And he’s pretty excited about it. “We’ll stop in the middle of the matinee and ask the players questions, and the students get quiet,” he said. “It’s been a real eye-opener for a lot of these kids, because (the musicians’ stories are) not that dissimilar from what the kids are going through, and for them to hear that is really cool.” Ben Salmon can be reached at 541-383-0377 or email@example.com.