Street Magazine

SOUND CHECK / All that jazz
– 5/21/04

It’s 11 p.m. at Gil’s Café in North Beach and the house band for Thursday night’s ”Professional Jazz Jam” is cooking. Onstage, local keyboard whiz Kiki Sanchez is leading the band through a Latin-infused swing number. Offstage, hulking, renowned blind pianist Mike Gerber stands up from his table with a trumpet and proceeds to blow mightily in weird, sparse intervals. A sloppy grin is splashed across his face, as if he’s getting away with something he shouldn’t. Bassist/music director Mike Wood holds it all together with a bemused look.

In another place, great pianists with titanic resumes (Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey, Jaco Pastorius, and Ron Carter are just a few of the legends Gerber has played and recorded with) need trumpets like frogs need airplanes, but here in one of Miami’s few jazz oases, improvisation is always welcome. And damned if Gerber isn’t on point, in key and propelling the tune beyond pleasant background music and into something that demands a reaction, a positive one judging by the applause from the packed house of young couples looking for sophistication and older snowbirds drinking in the music of their youth.

But as Gil’s promoter Kim Chmura points out, all this fun is serious business. ”Please make sure people know it’s a professional jazz jam,” she pleads in her thick Boston accent, while sipping on a Budweiser draft. “I don’t want people thinking they can walk off the street and get onstage with their triangle or spoons. No spoons. No triangles.”

We walk to an outside table as the band takes a break. ”I should be a millionaire from jazz,” she muses. Pardon? After all, the only jazz millionaires these days either are tofu-jazz hacks like Kenny G or ones who share the Marsalis surname. ”When I was a little girl, I’d go on car trips with my grandfather and we’d listen to Glenn Miller and Benny Goodman on the radio,” she explains. ”And he’d tell me he’d give me a hundred dollars if I could tell him what the song was. I always got it right.” She smiles. “On his deathbed, I asked him where my money was.”

When her boyfriend inherited some Miami real estate in 2000, Chmura left behind her 13-year career as a hairdresser and the relatively jazz-friendly Boston area for the subtropics. After spending a few months fruitlessly looking for something to do, she chatted up local jazz impresario Mo Morgen, who hired Chmura as his doorperson at the now-defunct Café Del Mar restaurant in North Miami-Dade. There, she learned the ins and outs of the the South Florida jazz scene.

Last September, a year after Café Del Mar closed, inspiration found Chmura on Miami Beach. ”I had just eaten dinner with Kiki Sanchez and I wasn’t ready to go home yet,” she recalls. ‘We walked by Gil’s and heard music. I couldn’t believe how beautiful the room was. There was a band playing but not a single person there. So I talked to the owner and told him I could get people in, and he said, `Go for it.’ ”

Eight months later, a rhythm section of Wood and drummer Howard Moss (whose credits include Mongo Santamaria, Dizzy Gillespie, and Alice Coltrane) back up an army of accomplished keyboardists that, in addition to Sanchez and Gerber, includes former Sammy Davis Jr. pianist Billy Ray and R&B organist Ben Collier (Jerry Butler, Sam Moore). Singer Mel Dancy rounds out the nucleus.

”It’s a big-time family setting,” Chmura says of Gil’s. “It’s the size of South Beach without the hassle, without the parking, without the crowds. I used to have to call people and beg them to come out, but now people don’t come because they’re doing me a favor, they’re there because they are having a good time.”

While Gil’s remains Chmura’s baby, she’s constantly on the lookout to expand South Florida’s live jazz universe. In February, she began an additional promotion on Tuesdays at Elia Restaurant in the Bal Harbour Shops. To blend in with Elia’s chandeliered, upscale atmosphere, she stripped down the jam to a revolving quartet (which has been further reduced to a duo for the summer).

Landing these gigs isn’t always easy. ”I call people out of the phone book all the time,” Chmura says. “I’ve gotten one private party out of it. Sometimes it’s a little embarrassing, but the guys need the work.”

Some of her guys may need to work, but others like Ricky Williams, a blind pianist who has a regular gig at the Forge, just want to play. ”He came here straight from a four-hour gig at the Forge just to play with us,” Chmura says in a hushed, admiring tone, as Williams lumbers into the room at 1 a.m. Williams sits behind the keys and begins singing a lovely blues.

Chmura looks over at an outside table where Dancy, Moss, and Collier are nursing drinks. ”Come on guys, let’s go in and support Ricky,” she gently exhorts. Collier, ear and bone tired at the end of the night, reluctantly stands up. ”Aw man,” he says, digging for a jazzy jibe. “It’s not like he’s gonna notice anyway.”

Kim Chmura’s Professional Jazz Jam is held every Thursday at Gil’s Café, 220 71st St., Miami Beach. No cover. For more information, call 305-867-0779. The jazz promotion at Elia Restaurant is held every Tuesday. Elia is in the Bal Harbour Shops, 9700 Collins Ave. No cover. For more information, call 305-866-2727.