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All That Jazz

For B Sharp, Getting Young Fans Is Academic

October 26, 1996|BILL KOHLHAASE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

With a new album out and a heavy schedule of touring to promote it, don't look for Los Angeles' own B Sharp Quartet to play its hometown any time soon.

The group opened in New York earlier this week at the well-known Greenwich Village nightspot Visiones, part of a trip that takes them to several showcase clubs on the East Coast, including Blues Alley in Washington and Ryles in Boston. In addition, the foursome will do clinics and concerts at universities in Massachusetts, New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Earlier this month, the quartet played clubs in Chicago; St. Paul, Minn.; Toledo, Ohio; Pittsburgh; and San Diego--again with plenty of college stops in between. The end of that tour brought it home to Los Angeles and the Catalina Bar & Grill, where its blend of straight-ahead drive and hip-hop/R&B feeling earned enthusiastic responses from audiences that held a larger than usual complement of listeners under 30.

The group's new album, "Searching for the One" (its third from the Studio City-based MAMA Foundation) and its college-heavy touring schedule seem well-tailored for inviting a new, younger audience into the jazz fold.

"We're most definitely trying to interest the younger crowd," says drummer and B Sharp co-leader Herb Graham Jr. "The buying public of the future is in college right now and they're open to different kinds of music. Those are the people who are going to keep jazz alive."

The 34-year-old Graham, who wrote the majority of tunes on "Searching," says he favors a strong, accessible melody, as often as not played over unusual chord changes. "I wanted to write things engaging for the listener but still challenging for the musician. The chords may be very abstract, but I use a simple melody to pull them together."

The quartet--which consists of Graham, saxophonist and co-leader Randall Willis, keyboardist Rodney Lee and bassist Osama Afifi--sprung from the Leimert Park jazz scene of the early '90s. Its co-leaders credit drummer Billy Higgins and poet Kamau Daaood (who makes a guest appearance on the album) for supplying encouragement and providing a place to rehearse at their World Stage performance space.

The group's collective experience playing in hip-hop, reggae and bebop bands around Los Angeles influences the rhythms of their music. Willis says he polished his sound playing with trombonist Jimmy Cleveland's nine-piece ensemble and the Gerald Wilson Orchestra, and also gained valuable lessons working with such crossover bands as the Underground Railroad, the swing band Zoot Case, the Farside and various funk bands.

Graham cites experiences that include touring with the Supremes, playing in the house band at the Black and Blue Club on Sunset Boulevard (where everyone from Stevie Wonder to Billy Idol sat in) and subbing for McCoy Tyner and Joe Henderson's drummer during a pair of concerts in Japan.

When on the road, the group promotes its appearances on local college radio stations and hawks its recordings at the concerts. It frequently conducts on-campus clinics about jazz and the music business. "We really get a fantastic response," Willis says. "The shows are crowded and we sell a lot of CDs after they hear us play. Hopefully, they'll remember the B Sharp Quartet."

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