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Making History

Making History 


by Phil Busse


Along Third Avenue, by the auto parts stores and low-slung hotels, is an unassuming beige building—not unlike the other blocky buildings along the no frills stretch of Bend. There is nothing on the exterior to indicate that Just Joe's Music is a worm hole into another universe—one filled with blaring saxophones, screaming trumpets, memories and stories about how jazz has touched individual lives and shaped history.

The shop is tucked into a building that could as easily house an orthodontist or tax preparer. But past the front door (visitors must be buzzed in), a flight of stairs climbs to the second-floor shop, where the walls are lined with saxophones, posters of Dizzy Gillespie shows and photographs of Joe—the storeowner and namesake's—grandfather who played clarinet professionally during the heyday of Big Band—the 1930s, '40s and '50s—when such music regularly blared from radios coast to coast and filled living rooms with their brash sounds. The space feels caught somewhere in the triangle of a jazz museum, a nightclub in Oakland and an outlet mall.

"Our inherent responsibility is to preserve music," says Joe Rohrbacher. He has hands as big as baseball mitts and an infectiously genial mood.

Rohrbacher grew up in a small southern California town that, like Bend, was isolated from many of the big city offerings such as nightly jazz shows. Yet, the music program at his high school brought in top name musicians—an interaction that hooked him into a lifetime of music. He even met his wife at a music store, he points out.

Now, Rohrbacher is trying to pay that forward: Starting seven years ago, Rohrbacher began hosting small jazz shows in the second-story space. He would replace all of the light bulbs with colored ones to give more ambiance, and invite a few friends. They were intimate affairs, with nationally-recognized musicians playing in a makeshift venue the size of an elementary school classroom.

Three years ago, though, the shows moved to a larger and more formal space at Cascades Theatrical Company's Greenwood Playhouse. At first, admits Rohrbacher, he was reluctant to move the shows. "I had just bought 40 new chairs," he laughs. But when he walked into the space, which seats 110, yet still holds onto that intimate feeling, he was instantly sold. "It was perfect," he recalls. "We were home."

On Saturday, Jazz at Joe's—which has held on to its name, in spite of the venue change—will host its 44th show, "Trumpet Madness," a trio of trumpet players set against the backdrop of bass, drums and piano.

Rohrbacher describes the music that they bring into Bend as "straightforward jazz."

He is particularly cautious about what music he curates because he recognizes that some jazz—like John Coltrane's rambling symphonies—can be complicated and intimidating.

"I don't want to hamstring the musicians," says Rohrbacher, "but I ask them to keep it in the mainstream, and remember the type of music that first brought them to jazz."

Much more an urban art form—often taking its sensibilities from the complexities and cacophony of cities, like the raucous Dixieland jazz of New Orleans or the smoldering blues of Chicago—jazz is about as natural to Central Oregon as a cowboy is to New Orleans, Rohrbacher recognizes this, and wants to present music that will welcome instead of alienate patrons.

But, even though jazz isn't natural to Central Oregon and, at best, has a thin history in the region, its recognition and appreciation is changing: Through a series of impressive shows this year, jazz is being thoroughly introduced to Bend. In addition to the Jazz at Joe's Saturday's show at Greenwood Playhouse, this weekend also kicks off the wintertime series, Jazz at the Oxford—the combination of the shows, and the top shelf talent they are importing, makes this perhaps the biggest weekend of jazz in Central Oregon, ever!

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