By JON ROSS
Pianist Gary Motley has many fond memories of the Emory Jazz Festival, held each February in the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts. For the past eight years, he’s accompanied guest artists such as guitarist Russell Malone and saxophonist Benny Golson; he’s even shared the spotlight with some masters of the art form, giving piano duet concerts with Kenny Barron and Dave Brubeck.
Motley, who is Emory University’s director of jazz studies, will once again take the stage Friday, along with bassist John Clayton and drummer Herlin Riley, for the opening night of the two-day festival. Three ensembles — the Emory Big Band, a small student group and jazz professors — are on the bill for a free Saturday night event.
Getting the chance to improvise with top-tier musicians on his home turf might be reason enough for Motley to help coordinate the festival, which was founded in the late 1990s as a showcase for regional college big bands. But Motley has another goal: education. Each artist conducts free master classes during his time in Atlanta — Clayton will be holding sessions on Thursday and Friday that are open to the public — and the real-world experience shared during these moments is invaluable.
When Golson came to Emory two years ago, Motley remembers watching enraptured students absorb everything the jazz master had to say about improvisation on melodies he had penned during his long career. “It doesn’t get any cooler than that,” Motley told me over the phone. “When the guy who wrote [the tune] is saying, ‘This is how the song goes,’ you want to listen to him. We do [the festival] as a way of exposing our students to industry professionals, but we also like to do community outreach and make sure that we’re serving the community.”
In addition to learning opportunities for young jazz musicians, Motley sees the festival as a way to infuse the Atlanta jazz scene with little-seen artists. By coming to the festival, Atlantans get to hear performers who most likely don’t make it here very often, he says. This helps create a buzz around the music — something that is hard to find in the city’s musical landscape.
“There’s always been community support here in terms of people coming out to support the music and radio stations playing the music, so jazz has always been here,” Motley said. “As with any place, it’s always a struggle to keep this music going, because it’s not the popular music of the time — that day has gone — and there’s always the challenge to keep it in people’s consciousness.” By presenting local talent with the best national artists, he hopes these Emory concerts will bring more credibility to Atlanta jazz and further establish the city as a leader in live, improvised music.