In the latter half of 2007, one of Houston’s most revered venues re-opened its doors once again. Considered by many to be the city’s best entertainment location for live performances, the H Town Arena Theater closed its doors approximately 4 years ago after 30-plus years of presenting quality attractions. When walking the hallway of the Arena, there are numerous pictures of luminaries on the walls that have graced the stage of the Arena. The list reads like a “Who’s Who of Entertainment.” Among the many stars that have performed at the venue include The Manhattan Transfer, Al Jarreau, George Benson, The O’Jays, Diana Ross, Steve Martin, David Sanborn, Kenny Rogers, Bill Cosby, Gallagher and a host of other stars of comedy and music.
What makes the Arena Theater such a perfect venue for live entertainment is the dome-shaped circular architecture of the building and a revolving stage that allows for excellent viewing no matter where patrons are seated. One of the more prolific aspects of the building has been the presentation of live jazz music in an intimate setting. That has allowed aficionados and connoisseurs to experience their favorite artists up close and personally. On the night of April 19th that was the case when Pieces of a Dream, Najee and Roy Ayers brought jazz back to the H Town Arena Theater.
As mentioned previously, the Arena Theater is a great venue for live entertainment; as such, when Pieces of a Dream hit the stage after the opening act’s performance, jazz in a wonderful array of flavors highlighted the night for those in attendance. Anchored by drummer Curtis Harmon and keyboardist James Lloyd, Pieces of a Dream is one of jazz’s most notable groups. Since their debut in 1976, the group has wowed audiences throughout the world with their funk-laden soulful approach to jazz. Considered by many to be one of jazz’s most significant artists, their appearance in Houston helped to re-establish a lost musical bond that was once part of a rich and vibrant heritage.
In an environment dominated by smooth jazz radio and generic sounding artists, Pieces of a Dream has managed to maintain a presence in spite of current trends. Their musical adaptations and presentations on the night of April 19th called up a legacy of entertainment that the audience could relate to. The funk and circumstance of their music pushed the patrons of the Arena to ecstasies beyond unimaginable expectations, while opening the door to an enthusiastic response from the near capacity crowd of 2000. For the first time in many years of deprivation, the entertainment value of jazz was showcased. The melding of three distinctively different styles of musical entertainment that was underscored by an often under appreciated genre was a major hit in Houston. Pieces of a Dream proved that they provide a much-needed presence in jazz while paving the way for Najee, the second noteworthy presence of the Arena’s Spring Jazz Series.
As a former member of Chaka Khan’s band, saxophonist Jerome Najee Rasheed first arrived on the scene as a solo jazz musician with the release of ‘Najee’s Theme’ in 1988. Since then, he has released 12 albums and either performed or recorded with numerous R&B and jazz artists. Riding high on his latest CD entitled ‘Rising Sun’, Najee also provided much needed relief from the jazz drought that has engulfed Houston in recent years. Seldom seen or heard over the airwaves of radio in the Space City, Najee has managed to maintain a level of popularity in spite of subversive benign neglect. On a national and international level he has received numerous accolades and awards as one of jazz’s most dynamic artists. The scheduling of his performance was also received with much anticipation.
Dressed in an attire of a white suit, shirt and shoes, Najee performed many of his classic songs as well as selections from ‘Rising Sun’. Although his music had a noticeably different texture than that of Pieces of a Dream, Najee provided his own unique spin on jazz of a different flavor. One of his highlights was an appearance by keyboardist James Lloyd who coincidently appears on ‘Rising Sun.’ Together Lloyd and Najee spun a funk attack that forced the audience to rise in heralded adulation. As Lloyd left the stage, Najee continued to hammer on the notion that jazz is truly America’s music. In fact, he proved to those already in the know and the ones not so knowledgeable that he has a definite presence that is enlightening and entertaining. As a saxophonist, Najee’s music was fundamentally melodic and soulfully enticing. But even with Pieces of a Dream and Najee as jazz guides and ramrods the evening remained incomplete as the way was made for vibraphonist extraordinaire—the venerable Roy Ayers.
Anyone within earshot of “Everybody Loves The Sunshine” and “Searchin’” will recognize the talented skills of Mr. Roy Ayers. Having graced the music scene for more than 40 years, Ayers has moved us with a groove theory that was first originated by the legendary Lionel Hampton. No other artist in jazz history epitomized the vibraphone as a jazz instrument as did Hampton. In fact, that has been Roy’s primary source of inspiration from the very onset of his career. During his performance, homage was paid to Hampton and all of the individuals who have served as ambassadors to the world, while taking the message according to jazz to the far-flung reaches of the globe. In an oratory of reverence, Roy also spoke of the importance of jazz as a form of entertainment and its relevance as an art form.
Although Roy Ayers has performed in Houston numerous times, he continues to be one of the city’s favorite artists. With an unprecedented display of jazz and R&B grooves, Ayers’ stage presence was enthralling.As a funk-meister, he was at the top of his game with a variety of tunes that mesmerized the audience with vibraphonic influences. As a form of entertainment, Roy Ayers proved why he is the consummate performer and at 67 years young his energy level was beyond belief as well. As a showman, Ayers’ performances may be viewed as old school due to the all- encompassing nature of his act. What was seen and heard was a multifaceted array of vocals, solos and musical interactions that have been honed as systemic elements of high value targets of entertainment. With the crowd as judges, his performance added credence to the idea of jazz being a definite staple for music lovers.
Historically speaking the H Town Arena is the last of a long line of hallowed Houston venues. Gone are the Music Hall, Ebony Ballroom, Club Supreme, Rockefellers, La Bastille, Cody’s, Tower Theater, Club La Veek and Liberty Hall, all of which served as an oasis in the dark of night for jazz and other forms of live entertainment. Without a doubt, the return of the H Town Arena Theater was greeted with a welcomed sense of jubilation, especially so with the inclusion of Pieces of a Dream, Najee and Roy Ayers. Collectively, these three acts laid the foundation for a much anticipated future, whereby jazz aficionados and connoisseurs are expected to have an intimate environment where jazz can be enjoyed in an up close and personal environment. If April 19th was any indication of what can be expected in the future, jazz will once again have a viable presence as a form of entertainment in Houston.
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