Jazz rehearsal at the Flatiron

by Jordan Green

The keyboard player, whose name is Turner Battle, goofs between songs. He’s got some kind of percussive vocal sample programmed into his instrument, and he pecks one of the keys while jabbing an index finger in the indention between his Adam’s apple and thorax, as if trying to dislodge some foreign object from his throat.

Scott Adair, the 57-year-old manager of the group, calls the tune as the Wednesday night rehearsal at the Flatiron winds down just before midnight.

“‘Sweet and Lovely’ and we’re out of here,” he says.

After a false start, the group resumes and all three horns flare in broad strokes of sonic color: Adair on saxophone; Alan Neese, the group elder, on trumpet; and Rusty Smith, a journeyman with everything from beach music and country to jazz on his resume, also on trumpet. The opening verse resolves with these playful little commentaries, and then the 76-year-old Neese slides into a tender solo. He finishes, drops his horn into his lap, and bumps fists with Adair.

Battle massages the keys, drawing a rhythmic solo from the rich stream of notes, then quiets to allow guitarist Jud Franklin to take a solo. A banker by day, Franklin, elicits a clean, restrained succession of notes from his instrument. The music is bold, fluid and feeling.

Meanwhile, the marathon drinkers are getting louder, erupting in sclerotic laughter and slapping the bar. Time seems to suspend as the music relaxes in a collective exhalation. Adair claps at the end of Franklin’s extended solo and hoots appreciatively: “Whew, look at you.” Neese has remained seated through the whole thing, serene as a Buddhist monk and yet taking in every detail like movie director. A brawl could erupt and he wouldn’t bat an eyelash; everything about him is accepting, nonjudgmental and compassionate. He thumbs through sheet music.

Adair slides into a solo, playing more brashly than the others, teasing a plea out of the melody. Then, without changing expression, Neese points to Charles Gambetta, who is also conductor, to take a bass solo.

“Doing music like this has nothing to do with making money,” says Adair, a graduate of Berklee College of Music who recently accompanied Billy “Crash” Craddock on an oldies nostalgia swing across Australia, and who has toured with the revived Temptations and Four Tops. “It’s strictly a labor of love. The older I get the more I realize that you’ve got to have something to sink your teeth into with integrity because the other stuff, while it’s fun, is not all that soul satisfying.”

The band has started rehearsing every other Wednesday at the Flatiron, a working-class bar on Summit Avenue that doubles as an indie rock club, and they perform a regular gig on the first Friday of each month. Neese and Adair lead a repertoire band that showcases a songbook compiled by Neese through his long tenure in the New York jazz scene from the early 1950s through 1975, when the Greensboro native and his wife returned to North Carolina to raise a son.

Neese followed an NC A&T University student and jazz saxophonist named Jackie McLean to New York and rubbed elbows with legends like bop saxophonist Charlie Parker, painter Salvador Dali and poet Allen Ginsberg.

“Charlie Parker was still alive,” Neese recalls. “I used to see him. He used to come by the house. He was the Bach of jazz. He was the man, you know.” Later, he describes his time in New York as being “like the impressionistic era in Paris.”

It’s a passing of the torch of sorts.

Neese collected these songs, titles by Kenny Garritt, Tom Harrell, Horace Silver, Clifford Brown, Charles Toliver and others that the band plays. The drum seat remains open to accommodate a rotating cast of players from Gate City colleges, including A&T’s Larry Q. Draughn Jr. – young Turks eager to soak up the knowledge. Neither Draughn, who is more commonly known as Q, nor any of the other drummers, are at the Flatiron tonight. Then there’s Battle, who graduated from A&T in 1985 and picked up with Neese when he returned from New York.

“We used to rehearse on Howard Street,” Neese recalls.

“We played constantly even if we didn’t have a gig,” Battle says. “You know, like firemen at the station, you’re always rehearsing, so when a gig comes up, you’re ready.”

It appears the music is in safe hands.

One of the enthusiasts in the house tonight, a woman who tends bar across town named Amy Davis, rhapsodizes about Draughn. She wears her short, spiky hair with blond highlights, a dress with a pattern of tiny cats and gumboots painted with flowers.

“I’m not star-struck, but this kid, I couldn’t take my eyes off him,” Davis says. “I had to get his fucking autograph. Even though he’s playing behind this group of incredible, fabulous musicians in front of him, he still sounds great.”

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