By Teddy Robertson
Tuesday night in downtown Flint and that means jazz at Soggy Bottom. On this cool April evening a gust of wind propels people through the front door just as the smiling drummer John Hill grabs the mic and announces, “We’re going to do some spring songs!” Together with Pat Cronley on keyboard and Jack McDonald on the bass, Hill opens the first set. The sticks go down and Hill looks radiantly happy. I think he is the happiest jazz drummer I’ve ever seen.
Jazz Night at Soggy Bottom Bar has been going for nearly three years. It was the brainchild of premier bar tender Andy Sartuell. Sartuell was good friends with Jack McDonald (a Linden High School grad now studying music at Western) and the two played indie music around Flint. Sartuell pitched the jazz night idea to Soggy Bottom’s bar manager Ken Laatz and he agreed. Sartuell called Pat Cronley and McDonald contacted Hill.
The Jack McDonald Jazz Trio was a go.
According to Hill, the first couple of jazz nights the audience was thin; when he looked over to the raised seating area, he says, rolling his eyes in mock distress, hardly anyone was there. But attendance grew.
You’d never know there’d ever been a sparse attendance night now.
By the second set the bar is packed, standees clustered behind the stools; newcomers enter, heads pivoting in search of a place to sit. Sidling along the bar they glance into the backroom pool table. Barely visible through a glass door is a patio where hardy smokers sit under the umbrella tables, overlooked by a Kevin Burdick mural on the building’s back wall. Climbing a couple of steps to the seating area overlooking the bar and band area, they will poke their heads round to the side room. Tables with club chairs (and a second pool table)—all full.
Soggy Bottom is packed. Some sigh and leave, but mostly they stand and eye the bar for departures.
Various horn players join the trio for Tuesday jazz. Two frequent crowd pleasers are trumpeters Walter White and Dwight Adams. Sax players from Detroit, Steve Wood and Carl Cafagna sometimes drive up. A surprise one night was Ukrainian trumpeter Yakiv Tsvietinskyi, a music student from Western Michigan University. The Ukranian had met McDonald at the WMU Union jazz jams and McDonald invited him to come to Flint.
Some nights Nick Calandro is on the bass. Calandro once took a class from me at UM-Flint (he remembers this better than I do). That’s how Soggy Bottom Jazz Night goes—you never know who you’ll run into. Former Mott Park neighbors who’ve moved to peaceful glades of Flushing or Fenton return to the city for jazz.
The repertoire varies with the soloist, but standards like “Caravan,” “In a sentimental mood,” “Song for my Father” and “Nica’s Dream,” and “Recorda me” or “Along Came Betty” are frequent. Hill wields the mic—“We’re going to do a ballad,” he says. Or we’ll get some jazz trivia: “This was the only piece Charlie Parker ever wrote in a minor key. Do we know that?” he implishly queries Pat Cronley. Pre-break signature is a jazzy version of “The Flintstones” theme song.
Late on a full night, people take to the floor to dance or a vocalist emerges from the audience.
A music educator with 23 years experience in public schools, Hill taught percussion for 6 years at UM-Flint and he’s also taught 10 years at Mott. Now he teaches music at Oxford High School, and all instruments—piano, guitar, theory, jazz. But not band.
Maybe that’s why Hill started the bi-monthly blast known as Big Band Night. The idea grew out of a jam session music teachers do for their students on Honors Band Day each year in January, he said. The students practice all morning and in the afternoon the band directors get together and play for them.
For Big Band Night, Hill enlists his music educator colleagues as section leaders (trumpet, sax, trombone) and the section leaders assemble their players for a 20-piece band. Hill organizes the music and if he can get another drummer, he’s free to conduct; you’ll hear his instructions to the players, something about the measures or coda. Different musicians will take a solo, but it’s all pretty spontaneous—90 per cent of the time they have no rehearsals.
By 5 p.m. Soggy Bottom is packed. Cars fill the adjacent lots—the Local Grocer and the former Jag the Haberdasher spot. At 7 p.m. the trio opens a first set, allowing time for musicians to arrive. They gather in the side pool room where Hill has laid out music sheets on the pool table.
It’s all fun for Hill. He comes in smiling, even late or rushed, and heaves his drums around as he chats with everyone. Music fans cluster at the front end of the bar and friends hang over the railing from the table area. Hill radiates optimism, and a good thing too. He has a non-stop teaching schedule and a family of four kids—one entering college, two teenagers, and a four-year old. All except the youngest are involved with music. With his three eldest, Hill played in church at Holy Redeemer on Easter.
Big Band night takes place the last Tuesday every other month. Check the Events list on Soggy Bottom’s Facebook page—other nights and special events are listed there. The bar is at 613 Martin Luther King Ave. 810-239-8058.
EVM columnist Teddy Robertson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.