ATHENS — Jazz Nights at Tony’s Tavern has offered some of the most memorable evenings of local music over the past few years – for jazz aficionados, at least.
Tony’s is located between The J Bar and Souvlakis Mediterranean Garden, with its bright red “Tony’s” neon letters distinguishing itself between the two venues.
Beyond the bar’s distinctly relaxed and laid-back feel, it’s the only venue to set aside nights exclusively for jazz music. Tuesday nights from 9 p.m. to around midnight, local artists and bands play a mixture of original music and tributes to some of the genre’s most popular hits.
During each set, bands are placed toward the bar’s back wall in a condensed stage space. There, bands set up on top of the six-inch platform, making up much of the back corner with equipment and instruments.
Each week, a crowd of spectators immerses itself in the rhythmic patterns of saxophone- and percussion-led music.
Ted Harris, a former OU professor and contributing artist in the local jazz band Word of Mouth, said the crowds vary by the week. Still, he feels Tony’s Jazz Nights are still a large part of Athens culture, with the weight of the genre’s agelessness and unique sound carrying a sizable impact.
“The atmosphere has been great,” said Harris. “It has been the type of atmosphere that you think people who would celebrate this type of music would have. All sorts of different types of people from different backgrounds, races and levels of education coming together to truly enjoy this American artform.”
Harris described the jazz scene in town as “growing strong.”
“There has been a number of jazz bands popping up over the last five years,” he noted. “Some of my bandmates now have their own bands. There are so many forms of jazz, though. I wish there was more variety of jazz in Athens to listen to.”
Since starting his jazz band 10 years ago, which he named from a Jaco Pastorius album, he’s seen the evolution and impact of jazz music in Athens.
“I have had nothing but positive experiences and feedback from the audience as a performer. People are very happy that we now have jazz in Athens when there was none before,” said Harris. “Jazz Night has made a positive impact on Athens because it allows the community to acknowledge that they do have a cultural event happening on a regular basis.”
Through Harris’ experiences, he’s also seen the rise and fall of the genre on a local and international scale. As a result, he said, artists are forced to transition to other genres to obtain a sense of musical notoriety.
“Unfortunately, the jazz scene in America and Athens has always had peaks and valleys, lows and highs,” said Harris. “That is why successful players play many forms of music — rock, classical, not just one. Jazz is just one of them.”
To continue gaining interest, especially among younger audiences, Harris said there could be a better collaboration of young musicians and older veterans. With this, Jazz Nights at Tony’s could draw in more supporters and provide better ideas for promotion. In turn, this would expand the bar’s signature event — one that’s completely independent from others in the uptown area.
“What we need to do is offer more opportunity for young players to play with older veterans and in a friendly, nurturing environment,” said Harris. “Platforms like Tony’s offers players a venue and a chance for them to see and share ideas with each other and discover new ideas.”