YOUR SOURCE OF JAZZ AND MORE IN WASHINGTON DC AND THE WORLD
By Willard Jenkins
DMV-based pianist Chris Grasso has carved out a niche that certainly qualifies him for the pantheon of great jazz vocal piano accompanists. That admirable coterie includes a distinguished list of piano accompanists who were and are particularly adept at providing vocalists with the kind of pianistic care and feeding that is by equal turns comforting and challenging.
That list of great vocal pianist accompanists certainly includes artists like Bobby Tucker (Billie Holiday), Tommy Flanagan (Ella Fitzgerald), Norman Simmons, Jimmy Jones, Ronell Bright, Ellis Larkins, Jimmy Rowles, Lou Levy, Bill Charlap (Tony Bennett), and other notable vocal specialists.
For the 2019 DC JazzFest – which now seems like a lifetime ago, what with pandemic restrictions in 2020 and our impending 9-month prohibitions of concert performances for audiences – we mounted an evening in tribute to Quincy Jones and Roy Hargrove. Opening that evening was the distinguished vocalist Sharon Clarke with the Chris Grasso Trio. That evening also featured an array of distinguished special guest soloists, including Cassandra Wilson, Joshua Redman and Kenny Garrett – each expertly accompanied by the Chris Grasso Trio, which added immeasurably to the great success of that Kennedy Center evening.
Fortunately for the DMV community, Chris Grass has answered the pandemic era call for fresh musical performances with a series of live streams from Blue House Studio in Kensington, MD. Blue House, site of several of our virtual DC JazzFest 2020 performances last September, has proven itself a particularly adept space for streaming performances and Chris Grasso has seized that locale for his ongoing series. Next up for the series is Billie Holiday Competition winner Sara Jones with the Chris Grasso Trio on Friday, December 4. Clearly some questions were in order for Chris Grasso.
When did you begin your Covid-era performance series at Blue House, and what was your original motivation?
Our first performance was in March. It was actually a replacement for a live show. I had just started a new ticketed monthly series at Mr. Henry’s in February. Our first night, which featured Lena Seikaly, sold out. It was such a great audience – really a listening crowd, and not an empty seat in the house. Sharón Clark was the next featured performer, scheduled for March 20, and also sold out in advance. But the week before the show, the COVID shutdowns hit, and Mr. Henry’s had to close. I got in touch with Jeff Gruber at Blue House and we moved the show to his studio. Jeff and I have known each other and worked on projects over the years. I was really fortunate to know someone with his skills, and a beautiful studio, who was available and willing to help make it happen. Then, when we saw the response from the audience, it was pretty overwhelming.
How have you gone about publicizing these performances, and what has been the streaming audience response to these performances?
Over the years, I’ve developed an e-mail list that’s grown to a decent size. Of course, social media is essential as well. I also try to get the shows listed on CapitalBop, JazzNearYou and other jazz listings and social media pages, including those done by Bertrand Uberall and Maryam Balbed. Promotion is definitely a big part of the work.
Do you monetize these streaming performances? If not, how is this series supported?
Yes, since the beginning, we’ve been requesting contributions from viewers, and that’s actually been successful. I think there’s something of a debate about the best way to handle streaming concerts. One school of thought is making payment mandatory – you send money, then you get a link to the show. I definitely understand that approach, and it’s obviously more like the way things would work in the analog world. The challenge with that is you miss part of the benefit of social media. Many people don’t plan or like to commit ahead of time, but if they’re scrolling through Facebook and see that a show is about to start, or even has already started, they may hop on and watch. Very often, they’ll also contribute.
You’ve carved out a real niche for yourself as a sensitive vocal accompanist. Has that been your intention all along, or did other circumstances contribute to your excelling at that important role?
I’d like to say that was by design, but it really was not. I’ve always loved great singers, but I didn’t really start to work with vocalists regularly until I began performing and booking the jazz at the Henley Park Hotel. We started the program with strictly instrumental groups, but it pretty quickly became apparent that the management wanted vocalists, so we switched the focus. Sharón Clark and Dick Smith became featured artists, and then we expanded to lots of other great singers, including Felicia Carter, Paige Wroble and more. Then, when I moved the program to the Mandarin Oriental, singers were really the draw, and that’s when I started working with Lena Seikaly, Sara Jones, Alison Crockett, Julian Hipkins and others. We also had a guest artist program where I got to bring in people like ThimNicki Parrott, Alan Harris, Denise Thimes, Denise King, Becky Kilgore, Byron Stripling, Annie Sellick and Deborah Brown. I was really lucky to get that opportunity.
How has your Blue House series of streaming performances evolved thus far?
Well, like everyone, we were really flying blind in the beginning. We had no idea whether people would tune in, and whether they would support it financially. After the first show in March, we realized there was a need for this kind of thing. But then, of course, lots of other streaming music started happening, so there’s a lot more competition. But, knock on wood, we seem to have developed something that people like and that, I hope, they’ll continue to support.