It was a perfect evening for jazz in the park Saturday night. Like the music itself, the evening glowed with improvised, magical moments as guitarist John Darst freewheeled through a solo. Couples swayed on a dance floor of fresh cut grass and children tossed green glow sticks in the starry, dark sky with a streak of laughter.
A large, receptive crowd of close to 600 people took in the final installment of the Payson Concerts Under the Stars series, covering the Green Valley Park north lawn with pop-up chairs, wool blankets and gently bobbing heads.
Mary McMullen, recreation coordinator with Payson Parks and Recreation, said it was the largest crowd of the series with everyone staying most of the two-hour set.
The seventh performance in the series capped an event that almost did not happen after the town council made deep cuts to the parks and recreation budget.
Thanks to the generous $3,000 donation from an anonymous donor and the work of volunteers from the Friends of Payson Parks and Recreation, the concert series went on without a hitch.
The Friends group effort to save the concert series and other summer recreation programs came just in time for the parks board.
Friends treasurer John Wilson said when the group heard rumbles that the concert series was canceled they jumped into action to save the fan favorite, which draws in thousands of local and Valley residents.
“It worked out that we could have the concerts with the $3,000 and we have $20 left over,” Wilson said.
The concert series drew familiar fan favorites like Junction 87 on July 18 and the Gypsy Juke Rockers on July 4.
For the crescendo, the town booked the Payson Jazz Trio.
Payson and jazz may seem like an unlikely pair, with the town’s roots more cowboy than rat pack. But on Saturday evening, the two mixed well thanks to the trio, with the addition of string bassist and tuba player Buddy Apfel and Darst.
We can call them jazz cowboys, settling new sounds on the frontiers of a country music scene.
Trio members Gerry Reynolds on the drums, pianist Bob Smolenski and bassist Mike Buskirk played a collection of songs from the Great American Songbook. That included swinging Gershwin and Cole Porter show tunes, Carlos Jobin Latin bosa novas, jazz standard “Take the ‘A’ Train,” and various sambas and soulful ballads.
For two hours, the group played one crowd-pleaser after another, 18 songs in total, but only half of their planned set.
Never playing the same composition the same way twice, Reynolds said a song changes depending on a musician’s mood and interactions with fellow musicians and listeners.
“That is how jazz is supposed to be, with a lot improvised,” he said. “We all know the songs in our heads. If we feel inspired to try things, we do.”
Although the trio has played once a week together for almost five years, they rarely rehearse, and Saturday was no exception.
Apfel played the tuba with the group for the first time, which Reynolds said turned out “pretty good.”
“We had a lot of friends come up and a lot of people thanked us afterwards. We don’t often get that,” he said.
The trio will play again at the Artists of the Rim Studio on Aug. 7 during the Main Street First Friday event.
Wilson said Friends has no plans to raise money for the concert series next summer. The group is waiting to see how the budget plays out.
If money is needed, Friends will raise funds for any programs or events not self-sustaining.
“For sure we will have it next year, but I don’t know by what funding mechanism,” he said. “It is extremely popular, so it won’t go away. The board is very concerned about keeping everything going and this is one of the things that attracts a lot of Valley people up.”