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LOCAL HERO

Josh and Joan Joseph Jazz Up the Desert

May 29, 1996|LIBBY SLATE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

The owner of a well-known cafe in the Palm Springs area once told Josh Joseph, "Why should I hire jazz musicians? All I need is to hire a piano player and if I do, the bass player and the other players will come for free."

That exploitative attitude inspired Indian Wells resident Joseph to create the Jazz Appreciation Music Society (JAMS) to help talented Coachella Valley musicians gain the paid employment and respect he felt they deserved. A former Palos Verdes real estate agent who retired to the desert six years ago, jazz lover Joseph and wife Joan had been going out on the town and striking up conversations with the players.

"To make their living, the musicians would play where they could, whenever they could. Most of them, because of their devotion, need to play, so they'd play for nothing," says Joseph, 70, who played classical violin as a boy and discovered jazz as a teenager.

"I wanted to increase the listeners of jazz, and I was trying to figure out a way to squeeze the decision-makers in the cafes and hotels to hire musicians at a fair wage," he says. "I'd been a businessman. I enjoy making deals. You don't really retire--you change emphasis."

He had an idea in 1993 on a boat on Lake Chautauqua in western New York, where his family has a summer home. Upon his return to Indian Wells, he made owners of local venues a proposal: Hire musicians of his recommendation for a month and he would see that it was profitable for the establishments. He and Joan then recruited fellow jazz aficionados to bring friends to dine at the restaurants, clubs and hotels, and thus JAMS was born.

There are now 220 members, from an initial 40, as well as 400 other supporters from around the country who spend several months a year in the desert. All receive a newsletter produced by the Josephs that details upcoming concerts and special events. Some of the costs, originally paid entirely by the couple, are offset by members' annual $15 dues.

Joseph makes some bookings himself, rotating a pool of 12 to 18 musicians. A number of establishments that did not previously offer music now employ his players regularly. Others have increased the number of musicians they hire or the number of nights each week that music is offered.

Joseph's greatest success is a five-concert series, "Jazz at the Ritz," that began last year at the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Rancho Mirage and is held monthly on Sunday afternoons--what had been the hotel's slowest time period--from November through March.

Audience members pay $10, with the musicians receiving all of the proceeds. "We started in the lounge, prepared for 75, and had 152. By the third time we had 227, and had to turn 50 away," Joseph recalls. "Then we moved to the grand ballroom. The last time, with drummer Louis Bellson, we had 462 people and were outside on the croquet lawn."

The series will add a concert next year, extending the season to April. Other hotels have expressed interest in instituting similar programs.

"So many people love this music," Joseph says. "It's not esoteric. You can identify with it. It's stuff you really want to dance to. It's accessible, enjoyable, puts you in a good frame of mind."

JAMS member Dolores Boyer, a retired caterer from Palm Desert, agrees. "Jazz is a way of life for so many people over 55 in the desert. We love the Big Bands. This is our kind of music. To be able to present it this way, and get all these people together in huge groups, is wonderful."

Rancho Mirage pianist / composer / conductor Bill Marx, the oldest son of Harpo Marx, says, "What Josh has done for me is what he's done for every musician down here--to create a venue that presents us with dignity.

"It's been great for me. Not only do I have the knowledge that I can play for people whowill appreciate what I do, but it's become a nice social environment. You get to know the people you're playing for, and you want to work even harder. I have not met one musician who doesn't have a tremendous feeling for JAMS," Marx says.

Tenor saxophone player Don Rice of Rancho Mirage has played a number of gigs because of JAMS, including one in San Diego after visitors from that city heard him locally. "A lot of venues have opened up," he says. "It's so nice to see so many people support jazz. Josh and Joan have worked so hard for the local musicians. They're amazing."

Next season, JAMS and the Ritz-Carlton will donate some of the proceeds from "Jazz at the Ritz" to local high school and college music departments, to buy much-needed musical instruments. Joseph takes no money for his JAMS endeavors. "I get joy out of it," he says. "On my birthday, the musicians gave Joan and me a beautiful trophy they had made. It was just great."

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