Feb 27, 2013 - 21st Annual Keyboard Concert This Sunday

21st Annual Oklahoma Jazz Hall's Keyboard Concert This Sunday

            With the exception of the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame Concert and Induction Ceremony, which began in 1989, you’d be hard-pressed to find another annual Tulsa jazz event that’s been around as long as the Keyboard Concert, which celebrates its 21st incarnation this Sunday. The brainchild of veteran pianist and bandleader Gayle Williamson, it began in 1992 as a small event at Saied’s Music, featuring six of Tulsa’s top pianists playing on digital pianos in front of a crowd of about three dozen jazz aficionados. The response was good enough for Williamson to schedule a second one in ‘93, and by its third year, when the show was staged in Emerson Hall at All Souls Unitarian Church, the standing-room audience numbered around 250.

            Moving to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, then located in the Greenwood Cultural Center, the Keyboard Concert became one of the Jazz Hall’s most anticipated annual attractions. That’s still true today, as it’s soldiered on through the venue changes as well as four different piano-playing producers – Williamson, who helmed it for some 17 years, Chuck Gardner, Donald Ryan, and Scott McQuade, who took the reins last year.

            “I moved to Tulsa in ’08, about a month after that year’s Keyboard Concert,” says McQuade. “The next year I was asked to play on it, and I’ve done it ever since. Last year, I was the host, so I’ve been on a roll with it.”

            The fact that McQuade was asked to participate in the show so quickly after arriving in town speaks volumes about his ability – as does The New Face of Jazz, a 2010 publication from Billboard Books that includes him in its group of today’s outstanding jazz players. A native of Canada, McQuade came to Tulsa after meeting his wife-to-be in Florida, where she was a passenger and he was a musician on a cruise ship.

            “She’s from the Grove area,” he notes. “We tried the long-distance romance thing for a while, and then I finally moved here.”

            Of course, he immediately began looking into Tulsa’s jazz scene. And what he found surprised him.

            “I thought there would be a good scene because of the sheer number of people,” he recalls. “The Tulsa metropolitan area is about the size of Winnipeg’s, and I thought I’d find about the same thing here as I did there. But within the first month, I found that it was far above what I’d expected.

            “Now, I tell people I think Tulsa, per capita, is on a par with New York, Chicago, Los Angeles – the big three – when it comes to really good musicians.”

            And when it comes to putting together the Keyboard Concert, having all those really good musicians to choose from can be a double-edged sword. After all, the way the event is structured, only four can be featured each year.

            “Yes, and there are definitely 12 to 15 top piano players in town,” he says. “So what I kind of want to do is rotate people through every two or three years, This year, I’ve got a couple of people who haven’t been on it for a while.”

            That number includes Spencer Sutton, who starts the show, and Mike Leland, who’ll start the second half of the evening – following a special appearance by Keyboard Concert founder Williamson, who’ll “play a tune or two,” according to McQuade. Leland and Williamson were both featured on the very first concert in ’92,

            Barron Ryan follows Sutton in the first part of the concert, with McQuade coming on after Leland.

            “You definitely want variety,” says McQuade. “Spencer and Mike are about the same age, so they’re kind of in the same wheelhouse. Barron brings in both jazz and classical music, and Gayle comes from the generation preceding Barron. Then I just kind of do my thing to close it out.”

            The rhythm section for the evening consists of the veteran players Bill Crosby on bass and Tony Yohe on drums, two of the areas’s best-known jazzmen.

            “And, you know,” McQuade says, chuckling, “there are at least six or seven people in Tulsa who are really strong on each of those instruments as well. It’s really something.”        

            You can see and hear all five outstanding jazz keyboardists, accompanied by Crosby and Yohe, from 5-7 p.m.  Sunday, Feb. 12, at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame, located in downtown Tulsa’s Jazz Depot, 111 E. First St.  Tickets can be purchased at the depot or by calling Bettie Downing at 918-281-1008. General admission is $15, reserved table seating $20. Seniors and Jazz Hall members are admitted for $10, and high school and junior high students for $5.  Refreshments will be available for purchase.

            The 21st annual Jazz Keyboard Concert is a part of the Jazz Hall’s Winter Concert Series.

            The Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame is a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational organization, with a mission to inspire creativity and improve the quality of life for all Oklahomans through preservation, education, and performance of jazz, our uniquely American art form.