In the summer of 1992, Bill Wightman and his friend Rink Mann hatched the idea for “Jazz on a Sunday Afternoon.” They were hoping to re-create the atmosphere of the great New York jazz clubs during the heyday of bebop, when performers like Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and Ella Fitzgerald reigned supreme.
Rink was in a band and Wightman, a Berklee grad and longtime area pianist, was recruiting players to jam with. “I was into jazz, but I wasn’t doing only jazz,” says Wightman. “Rink said, ‘let’s make it only jazz.’”
“It was slow starting,” Wightman says. “We were doing it because we loved it.”
16 years down the road, the venues have changed – from its start the Lake Sunapee Country Club to a five-year run at the Newport Opera House, to JOSA’s current home, the Center at Eastman.
But for Wightman – musician, teacher and jazz lover – the story remains the same.
“I’m doing this for me, and all the musicians that I work with. I’m not making a lot of money,” he says. “I do it to play.”
In keeping with the session spirit that spawned the series, Wightman’s house band, the JOSA Ensemble, has changed and evolved over the years.
The current lineup – John Hunter on bass, percussionist Tim Gilmore and reed man/flutist Richard Gardzina, with Wightman on piano – has the requisite instincts to follow a wide-ranging vocalist like Shawnn Monteiro, an inventive horn player like Greg Abate or a dynamic duo like saxophone player Fred Haas and singer Sabrina Brown (all of whom will perform during the current season).
“They’re just so solid and dependable,” says Wightman. “The variable is that we play with people we’ve never played with before, the featured artist. So to have a real solid rhythm section is a real advantage.”
Such sentiments also motivate him in his day to day life.
Wightman taught off and on for 10 years at Proctor Academy; now he’s their full-time music director. In that role, he’s shepherded students to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, his alma mater. More important, he’s refined what he calls an “experiential” method of music instruction.
“If art becomes academic, it’s no longer art,” he says. During his classes, “we jam, we get a groove going. We listen to each other. Do I conduct? Yeah, to get them going, but then I step out of the way.”
“I do a lot with improvisation, and with understanding … the chordal structure of a song, as opposed to just giving them a sheet with notes on it,” he says. “We work on what is the form, how do you solo. Everybody solos; everyone has a lot of fun with it.”
The goal is to help each student find their place in the group, and “communicate through playing,” says Wightman.
“That’s what I’m teaching, and is in fact the joy of playing music.”
JOSA’s season opener brings together these many threads. Al Alessi, who also opened last year, is a longtime collaborator of Wightman’s. This time around, Alessi is bringing his daughter Elizabeth, who’s making her marquee debut. The 16-year vocalist, however, has performed quite a bit, performing with her dad’s band, and also singing with Wightman.
“She sang at JOSA at the Opera House,” said Wightman as the pair sat down following their regular first Friday appearance at Sophie & Zeke’s in Claremont.
“She scatted with Lady Eve and was right next to Big Joe (Burrell),” notes Alessi, adding that the then-12 year old “had a lot of composure on stage, and some real interesting young chops.”
Wightman compares her to a young Norah Jones; he asked her to play JOSA after backing her during a fundraiser in Woodstock, Vermont.
“She was fabulous, really quite something,” he says. “We had a great rapport together.”
Al pointed out that “Biz” (her nickname) was busy finding her muse these days. She’s writing songs on the piano and working with a voice coach, and she recently discovered Joni Mitchell’s “Court and Spark” period. She wasn’t exactly keen on sharing the stage with Dad.
“She’s probably regretting that she said she’d do this,” Alessi says, “but Bill asked her and she can’t say no to Bill.”
“We might do a duet,” Al says.
Responds Wightman, “well, I hope so.”
Al laughs it off. “We might do “Cheek to Cheek” – Louis and Ella did that,” he says. “We’ll come up with something. Maybe, if she wants to. I’m not gonna force it.”
Wightman smiles, looking sure that Alessi & Alessi’s performance will go without a hitch.
He’s asked, “Is this the youngest featured performer you’ve had at JOSA?”
“Yes, I think it is,” he answers – at least with their name on the program. For years, Wightman’s extended an open invitation to anyone with the gumption to get up on stage and jam, regardless of age.
“That is one of the things about JOSA, it invites young people, any age, to sit in,” he says. “For the audience, it’s just a major hit.”
It’s also a sweet deal, he says. “If you come to play you get in free. It’s really a good place for kids to get experience with top notch musicians. My guys are really good with kids.”
Casting aside riches to excite musical discovery has always been a big part of Bill Wightman’s philosophy. It’s what’s kept JOSA vital all these years.
Says Wightman: “I never went after the money. I went after the gig.”