Life is like jazz. Drum roll please … A man gathers a band; they look for a place to play and find a nice church that ends their search.
“We wanted a place that was acoustically nice and big enough,” drummer Gerry Reynolds explained.
Payson’s Community Presbyterian Church on Main Street, with its big sanctuary and cherished old Grinnell Brothers piano became home to monthly jazz performances in 2002.
Those gatherings spawned the church’s reputation as a gathering place. “It’s not just for jazz on Sundays,” Reynolds said. “It’s starting to be a center for music here.”
Jazz, Reynolds said, never gets stale. It’s improvisational and free.
“I like the idea that it’s freeform,” Reynolds said. “It gets to be very funny. I mean, you never know how it’s going to come out.”
But the piano they play has lost its sprite.
“It was a wonderful piano in its heyday,” Reynolds said. The pegs that hold inside strings constantly shift, which makes tuning an ongoing project. The hammers, worn with age, hit the keys to emit a sound that is not a jazz sound. “It’s a little too bright,” Reynolds said.
Reynolds, in concert with the church, is trying to raise $10,000 to purchase a new piano. A Sunday afternoon performance, featuring the Chicago-based, Grammy Award nominee Judy Roberts, opened the fund-raising. Reynolds said he’s aiming to collect enough money to purchase a piano by the first of the year.
Community Presbyterian has evolved into a jazz center, however unlikely. The church claims Reynolds and his buddies spawned the “birth place of jazz in Payson.”
The apples, cookies and coffee available here on second Sunday afternoons are perhaps not what one would think usual jazz scene offerings.
No blue lights, no smoke, no ladies in red lipstick singing soulfully to a rapt and maybe slightly inebriated audience.
Reynolds, a regular in Rim Country’s music scene, began the church shows precisely for the crowd that wanted to hear jazz, but not in a bar. Performances are unrelated to religion, unless music is your religion.
Reynolds divides his time between Fountain Hills and Strawberry. When asked, he said he’s played drums since his senior year in high school. But when asked again later, he details a musical journey that began even earlier, when his parents gave him drums and some sticks to keep him occupied.
A fellow down the street gave him lessons, and eventually Reynolds played in marching bands, high school bands, and with a Coast Guard Band. He’s been playing jazz for roughly two decades.
In college at Cal Poly, Reynolds studied agriculture and played in the marching band. After college, he found a salesman job at the Carnation Company and eventually became director of the student financial aid department at Maricopa Community College after moving to Arizona in 1985.
He eventually enrolled in a half-credit music class at a community college and found a group of similarly skilled musicians who all repeated the class. “I probably got 20 credit hours out of that one half credit (class).”
Reynolds started playing around the Valley and culled his music contacts.
Close to seven years ago, he decided to invite some friends to the church and jam. “They love to come up here,” Reynolds said, joking that musicians go anywhere they can make a buck.
“I pay them. You can’t ask them to drive up here and not get paid.”
Admission is free with donations requested. Roughly 125 usually attend, though Reynolds has more than 300 on an e-mail list.
Sometimes a trio entertains, other times the group can expand to six.
In between songs, Reynolds said the musicians talk structure. When the chorus is, when the breaks are — all the knowns. During the performance, the musicians throw fat on the skeleton through improvisation.
“We make a lot of mistakes,” Reynolds said. That’s the joy of jazz. Classical music must be played as the conductor decrees. Jazz solicits interpretation. “Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.”
The momentum of jazz on Sundays has come to a crescendo like the music itself. “One of our people in town started having a house party for musicians.” Now, they gather and jam and Reynolds says he gets to the church at about 10 a.m., and doesn’t get home until 8 that night.
“It’s like running a business,” he said.