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Changing Ain't Easy: The evolution of the grassroots Jazz at Joe's series 

Duncan McNeill wants to teach kids about outdoor life and music.

Changing from one performance venue to another can be a tricky thing, even for the most experienced music impresarios. While they may make a site switch in order to offer their audiences a more quality experience, not all their patrons are sure a change of scene is always a good thing.

Such is the case with Jazz at Joe’s, the regular concert series originally held at Just Joe’s Music retail shop south of town, then moved to the Cascade Theatrical Company, and now based at The Old Stone Church.

The first change from store to stage went smoothly. Just Joe’s (the store) was simply too small to hold an expanding audience. The theater-to-church came when Just Joe himself, Joe Rohrbacher, decided the time had come to move on to other things and turned his concert series over to native Scot, local computer whiz, inventor and funk musician (with his band Raise the Vibe), Duncan McNeill.

“I decided to make the venue change, because I wanted a place that had a grand piano that would really show off the talents of the great players we present. I also wanted to be able to expand the size of the audience,” said McNeill.

Well it worked and it didn’t work. The piano proved an immediate boon to pianists and to people who like a pure, not electronic, piano sound. However, the size and feel of the room put many Jazz at Joe’s regulars off.

More than one Jazz at Joe’s patron said they liked the smaller, more intimate venues. A small room just seemed more in keeping with jazz performances, seemed to be the consensus. The intimate feeling of the room aside, there were some initial sound and lighting problems as well. Many of those qualms, however, have been quickly fixed, making shows like this weekend’s appearance by the Renato Caranto Quartet.

One thing that’s never suffered is the quality of the music and the attentiveness of the audiences. Musicians seem to play their best at Jazz at Joe’s and the reason for that, as Portland-based alto saxophone player Warren Rand noted during a concert this summer, is: “it’s lovely to play in Bend and to such an enthusiastic audience.”

Vibraphonists Chuck Redd, who first played in Bend 30 years ago at the now defunct Pat and Mike’s, echoed that sentiment in his most recent appearance on October 15.

“It’s simply a lot of fun to play Jazz at Joe’s,” said Redd.

McNeill’s escape from the stress of every day life was getting out into and participating in the outdoors and outdoor sports. That remained an essential part of his life long after his family fortunes had improved and he’d moved on into computer work in the 1980s and eventually to designing high-tech lasers. Sometime after moving to Bend 14 years ago, McNeill consulted a clairvoyant who told him: “you’re supposed to be a musician.”

“I took her at her word,” McNeill recalled recently, “and I set about to change my life. I always been interested in the saxophone and so went and purchased one.” Then came eight and a half years of five days a week intensive practice.

“I always kept this vision in my head while practicing that one day I’d be playing for large crowds and using my music for good causes.”

His hope was for a future that included the possibility of opening a place in Central Oregon where inner-city kids could be sent to stay free of charge to be exposed to the outdoors as well as learn more about music. Until then, life for Duncan McNeill revolves around Raise the Vibe gigs and Jazz at Joe’s concerts at the Old Stone Church. And he seems fine with that.

Jazz at Joe’s Vol. 36: The Renato Caranto Quartet

7pm Saturday, December 3. Old Stone Church, 157 NW Franklin Ave. Tickets at $25.


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