Tuesdays at Mort’s, Where the Jazz Is Jumpin’

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Monday, December 30, 2019, 7:20 am
Sarah Spohn

(Photos by Raymond Holt)

Editor’s note: Jazz Night at Moriarty’s promises a talented lineup for tomorrow night’s New Year’s Eve celebration.

Correction (10:30 p.m. Dec. 30): Nathan Borton is a jazz guitarist with the Technocats. The name of the band was misspelled in a photo caption in the original posting of this story.

The stage is set. There’s a drum kit, an upright bass, a guitar and a saxophone. The pub is dimly lit. You can almost see the clouds of smoke that once filled the watering hole back in the day. The Irish American pub, Moriarty’s (802 East Michigan Ave.), founded in 1979, well past the jazz era in the “Roaring Twenties,” still celebrates a weekly tradition of jazz today.

The weekly music series has a humble beginning at a café on Michigan Avenue in 2009, according to Tuesday Jazz Night host and resident drummer, Jeff Shoup.

“I had just re-entered the Jazz Studies program at Michigan State University, and simply wanted a place to play regularly,” Shoup said. “A big part of learning to play this music is learning on the bandstand, ‘in the heat of the battle,’ as my teacher, Randy Gelispie, likes to put it. I got a group of players together every week, and we just had fun. We weren’t paid a dime; I think I might have gotten a free latte every once in a while.”

After a few months, the series moved down to Stober’s Bar. The regular MSU student group performed a steady almost weekly, paid gig. They began to build a name for the event. “People knew about it, and it was decently well-attended, but we started awfully late. Most nights, we didn’t kick off until 10:15 or 10:30 p.m., so that kind of limited the audience for the event.”

In 2012, Shoup ran into one of Moriarty’s Pub’s new owners, Joy Allswede. The two discussed the idea of giving a jazz series a shot, at a new location. “It was almost an immediate success, due to the name recognition we had going from the previous incarnation next door at Stober’s,” Shoup said, “and the fact that we start much earlier, at 7 p.m.”

Word spread quickly

Shoup credits the event’s initial success to Joy, willing to take a chance on the group. In a short time, the event was able to bring in regional players from Lansing, Ann Arbor, Detroit, and Grand Rapids.

“Within a few months, it became a ‘thing.’ It’s really hard to believe it’s sustained this long, but we celebrated our five year anniversary in July 2019.”

The series includes a different featured artist each week. Shoup works with the guest, assembles a band to play with them, and aims to keep the programming diverse. One week, it might be a singer, the next might be a saxophonist, followed by a guitar player.

“That keeps things fresh, and keeps people coming back, because it’s always something different and they get to hear and meet new musicians,” Shoup said.

While the venue isn’t that large, the weekly series certainly fills the space with its share of attendees. Shoup recommends getting there by 5:30 or 6 p.m. to stake out a table. He also credits the growth to the Jazz Alliance of Mid-Michigan (JAMM), which assisted in getting the word out about the event. Financial sponsors and various supporters include Gregg Hill, Cold Plunge Records, and the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival, according to Shoup.

“In the past couple of years, we’ve started to gain a little bit of a national presence,” Shoup said. “I have artists as far away as NYC, Washington, D.C., and Seattle, who plan stops at Mort’s when they’re swinging through the Midwest. I’ve been privileged to perform with some pretty high level players, and that’s always a real thrill.”

Technocat jazz guitarist Nathan Borton plays a recent show at Moriarty’s. Borton currently is working as a teaching assistant at Michigan State University.

Diversity reigns in jam sessions

The series is part concert and part jam session, full of traditional, straight-ahead, swinging jazz. Usually, the booked guest musician and band will play the first 60-75 minutes as a concert. Then, after the break, things really get jamming.

“A lot of MSU music students and local jazz players come out to play,” Shoup said. “Sometimes, I’ve had cats as far away as Grand Rapids and Saginaw make the drive down to soak it all in and get a piece of the action. And I recently even had one of my drum students, who is 14, come out to sit in. She tore it up, by the way.”

It’s young people and current music school college students that help remind jazz veterans like Shoup that the genre is alive and well.

“It’s really inspiring to hear them play,” he said. “They’re in their late teens or early twenties and just blowing the roof off the place. You sometimes hear talk about ‘saving jazz,’ or ‘keeping jazz alive.’ I think the art form is alive and well, you just have to know where to find it.”

Though this event is growing, Shoup still admits the local scene seems to be dwindling, from his point of view. “Some cities still have a vibrant music culture, but Lansing for some reason, has seen a steady decline in the last couple of decades,” he said.

Shoup plays with blues, pop and rock bands, aside from jazz, and is regularly playing many local venues. He recalls when there were excellent players in multiple venues seven nights a week around town.

“When I first started gigging in 1993, there were two or three bars just in downtown East Lansing that had bands performing almost every night. A combination of factors has led to that demise of that golden age, unfortunately. The audience just isn’t there like it was, or perhaps the audience’s tastes have changed, and we musicians haven’t changed with the times. So that just means that once we develop an audience, we have to figure out how to hold onto them. Fortunately, if you’re offering something of quality, people react to it, and word gets out.”

Word on the street is that jazz is alive and well, and it’s found every Tuesday night at Moriarty’s Pub on Michigan Avenue, from 7-10 p.m.

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