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Bruce Eaton's long journey back to the Art of Jazz

Life can change in an instant. You blink your eyes, and the landscape has shifted. And you wonder if things will ever be the same.

In 2013, Bruce Eaton had been producing the Art of Jazz Series at the Albright-Knox for 15 years. He had become successful in the venture by commingling his love for -- and knowledge of -- the art form with experience in concert promotion that dated to the early '70s, when he produced shows for the then-unknowns Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel at Hobart College in Geneva. Eaton was bringing mature artists and on-the-verge-of-breaking newcomers alike to the auditorium at the Albright-Knox. The houses were routinely full, the audience feedback was positive and the artists themselves were so enamored of the room and the experience that they would call Eaton and ask to come back.

Eaton had done what seemed impossible: He created a successful jazz series in Buffalo, despite a lack of radio support and the pervasive view that jazz was not commercially viable in a city of our size.

But then, tragedy struck.

Eaton was diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a blood and bone marrow cancer. He underwent a bone marrow transplant and multiple rounds of chemotherapy treatment. And, as he recounts with a sigh today, he "just disappeared for a while."

Three years later, sitting in the living room of his Clarence home a few days prior to Thanksgiving, Eaton appears to be … well, thankful.

He shows no visible signs of his health ordeal. He seems strong and vibrant, and he remains enthused about music, waxing ecstatic about Bob Dylan's recent performance at Shea's Performing Arts Center in Buffalo – "He was in good voice and the arrangements had this almost Beach Boys-like quality," he gushes – dishing about a new idea he has for a music-themed book, and recalling with glee his favorite moments during his 15-year run working with the Albright- Knox to produce the Art of Jazz.

Happily, more of those memories are in the offing.

Beginning with the Dec. 2 Art of Jazz appearance of internationally renowned jazz guitarist Bill Frisell, Eaton – along with series co-producer Tony Zambito, the man behind – returns to the very room where he presented Vijay Iyer, Rudresh Mahanthappa, Jason Moran, Gregory Porter, Cecile McClorin Salvant, Maria Schneider, Mulgrew Miller, Robert Glasper, the Bad Plus, Dave Liebman, Charles Lloyd, Jack DeJohnette, and many others, between 1999 and 2013.

That so many of these artists were on the verge of breaking through when Eaton brought them to the Albright is telling. His greatest gift as a promoter and producer is his ability to feel the pulse of the music at any given time – or, as he puts it, "to have a sense of who is connected to the history of jazz at the highest level, and to have a feeling for who might separate themselves from the pack of young artists."

A lunch meeting with Zambito in early spring found the two jazz-lovers sharing ideas about the music, and its continued cultural resonance.

"That talk got me excited, because Tony totally gets it," Eaton said, leaning forward in his chair as he recalled that afternoon. "I thought to myself, 'I'm not ready to leave this behind.' "

The folks at the Albright-Knox agreed. And though the series is down to four dates per season, from its early 2000's peak of six, Eaton said he still feels that it's possible to present a solid and diverse lineup beneath the umbrella of jazz, a process he says is "like pitching a good baseball game – you need to present a good mix of stuff, to keep the audience engaged while challenging them a little bit, too."

Bruce Eaton, founder and producer of the Albright-Knox Art of Jazz Series, with some of his prized music memorabilia. (Photo by Jeff Miers)

The Buffalo area's relationship with jazz runs long and goes deep, but it is also marked by peaks and valleys.

The valleys have found world-class musicians playing to half-full houses, prominent jazz artists skipping Buffalo in their touring itineraries, clubs friendly to jazz bookings going dark, and local jazz virtuosos unable to make a living solely through playing music.

One of the highest peaks, however, had Eaton's fingerprints all over it – a jazz festival held at Artpark in 1995, one that News Arts Editor Jeff Simon recalls as "one of the greatest jazz events I've ever witnessed in my life, in Buffalo or anywhere else." (That Simon has for years regaled me with tales of seeing the Miles Davis Quintet at both the long-closed Royal Arms and the Town Casino - now the Town Ballroom - in the early 60s offers a sense of the gravity of this statement.)

That Artpark festival found Eaton cementing a lineup that reads like a jazz lover's dream wish list and spans generations of jazz genius – Sonny Rollins, Gerry Mulligan, John Scofield, Roy Hargrove, Jacky Terrasson, Milt Jackson, Leon Parker and Kevin Mahogany all performed.

The question for Eaton is if this event represented the zenith of jazz in the region. Could this happen again? Might a Buffalo jazz festival to rival the uber-successful one held yearly in Rochester be a possibility?

"I think jazz is much bigger here than people realize," he said.

"Considering we have no jazz radio station, like they do in Rochester, with WGMC, to educate and inform and consolidate listenership – that hampers us. But we have a lot of fans in the area listening to the excellent jazz station 91.1 FM out of Toronto, and to jazz stations on satellite radio. And look at the success of Pausa Art House, and of the events held at the Colored Musicians Club and in Martin Luther King, Jr. Park. has had a big hand in nurturing the growing jazz scene, too. And the Art of Jazz series has proven that, if you build a relationship of trust with an audience – if you put yourself in the audience's shoes, and offer them something that, even if they are unfamiliar with it and don't immediately love it, they will find it engaging and worthwhile – then you can succeed. You need sponsors, you need radio, and you need someone with real vision to get things going, bit it can be done.

"All of the pieces of the puzzle are there. They just need to be put together."

The Albright-Knox Art of Jazz series 2017-2018: An Evening with Bill Frisell & Thomas Morgan, 8 p.m., Dec. 2; Monty Alexander, 3 p.m., Jan. 28; Billy Childs Quartet, 3 p.m., March 18; Melissa Aldana Quartet, 8 p.m., April 21. Tickets/information




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