It's sustaining many people's passion for jazz classics and it's forming stronger bonds among area musicians and singers, according to its organizers.
The Fort Smith Jazz Jam is held from 6-9 p.m. on the third Thursday each month at the DoubleTree by Hilton Fort Smith City Center, 700 Rogers Ave. The free event allows area jazz musicians of all ages and skill levels to perform various jazz standards for an audience, which results in a unique, "special" experience for all involved, said Bruce Fowler, who is a Fort Smith drummer-percussionist and one of four organizers for the event.
"We basically keep it in the form of playing jazz standards," he said. "There are a couple books that jazz players usually have in their library, and they have all the jazz standards — 'The Girl from Ipanema,' 'Take the 'A' Train' and such. The books have hundreds of these songs that jazz players learn while advancing in their education.
"And that makes it easy — everyone knowing what is going to happen, regardless of who shows up," Fowler added. "That's the beauty of it. You can get musicians from all over to show up, and the sheet music is there for them."
Started from an idea from organizer Al Grzech and initially held at the facility that formerly housed MovieLounge, the Fort Smith Jazz Jam continues to thrive due to its laid-back nature and open invite to all area jazz music students and musicians, Fowler said. At times, a dozen or more musicians participate, he said.
"We have students and educators from the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, and there are students from area high schools who attend periodically," Fowler said. "It gives younger musicians an opportunity to express themselves outside of their normal comfort zone of performing in school and for school functions."
Grzech said he continues to witness Fort Smith Jazz Jam participants improving musically and gaining self-confidence. The intimidation some students feel at first quickly melts away, allowing the students to showcase their talents, he said.
"There's not that many venues that play jazz in the area, unfortunately," said Grzech, who is joined by fellow organizers Fowler, Terry Joe Wiles and Rick Meredith each month. "We have these wonderful music programs at UAFS and in our schools, but where can the kids play once they graduate? There are only a few venues, so (the Fort Smith Jazz Jam) gives a way for a lot of players to come sit in and play once a month.
"We wanted to pick an off-night and have a venue that would sponsor the event; the DoubleTree and general manager Duke Welsh have been great," he added. "We wanted something where players can just walk in."
Local singer Denise Messamore said the Fort Smith Jazz Jam is one of her favorite activities.
"Jazz is a learned art form that once taught, needs to be expressed," she said. "There aren't many places in Fort Smith for that to happen, thus the Jazz Jam was born out of Al Grzech's heart to give the space and freedom to play what so few musicians get to play, jazz.
"The Jazz Jam has created an atmosphere where there is no competition, but camaraderie amongst musicians to play and excel at their chosen craft," Messamore added. "It's real-world experience for the young and enjoyment and freedom for the young at heart."
The students inspire the older, "seasoned" players and singers and vice versa, Fowler said.
"The Fort Smith Jazz Jam is about giving back to the community, and it gives players an opportunity that we often don't have — playing together," he said. "There's quite a few jazz musicians in this area, but usually we don't get to play together as often as we would like. Seasoned players enjoy playing with each other and giving the younger players an opportunity to gain experience. It's a great mix."
The musicians and singers aren't the only ones soaking up the positive sounds during each Fort Smith Jazz Jam, Fowler said.
"We have quite a lot of people listen and watch; being in a hotel, that provides a built-in audience, and that's nice," he said. "We have a lot of regulars who come out to the jam, too. It's a really nice event to have on a Thursday night."
The next Jazz Jam is set to take place from 6-9 p.m. Aug. 16 at the DoubleTree, Fowler said.
"It's fun, and we post videos on the Fort Smith Jazz Jam Facebook page," he said. "This thing is indefinite. We just finished up a year, and we're planning on doing this as long as the DoubleTree will have it.
"Thanks goes to the DoubleTree staff, who are just as big a part of what is going on because they are providing the facility," Fowler added. "It's a great, comfortable place, and it creates a family environment."
Grzech called the Fort Smith Jazz Jam a "true array" of talent.
"I like to say that it's like a box of chocolates," he said of the jam. "You never know who is going to play each month, but it's always good."