A Home for Jazz in the Music City:
Welcome to the Nashville Jazz Workshop
Lori Mechem comes from a small town in Indiana, but there’s no midwestern twang in her voice. And there’s no snarky vibe from her time in LA or Southern drawl from her 25 years in Nashville. Instead, she’s got a laidback chill redolent of late-night whiskey after a satisfying gig, a rhythmic cadence much like Billie Holiday, that seems like it’s lazing along, but is always right on time.
But that chill belies the blazing determination to keep a light on and a door open for Jazz in Nashville. Co-founder of Nashville Jazz Workshop (NJW), with husband Roger Spencer, she has been a moving spirit for building a spiritual home for Jazz in the Music City. The child of musical parents who owned a music store, her early years encompassed professional work in both jazz and musical theater. Once out of college, she spent serious time in what she calls the “cutthroat” life of a gig musician in Southern California. Tiring of the grind, she and a Nashville-based flight attendant friend swapped places. Lori and Robert moved to Nashville; the friend moved to LA.
It was clearly meant to be. The warmth of Southern hospitality resulted in a space, and even more, a home for jazz lovers or all ages. As she proudly declares: “There’s something for everyone—anybody can take classes, anybody can come to concerts.” She points to the family atmosphere where many of the teachers remain for years, many students become teachers, and many of the people involved in a variety of capacities share their major life milestones with NJW.
While forming this stable jazz family, Lori hasn’t neglected her own musicianship. She has released nine albums, many with a decidedly Brazilian bent. When asked how a small-town girl in Indiana fell in love with Brazilian music, I could hear the shrug, part of her relaxed persona: “I just liked it. I heard Sergio Mendes and especially [Carlos] Jobim. We even have Jobim classes.” But with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor, Welcome to Brazil, the first CD with her Ritmos Picantes [Spicy Rhythms] band, featured a photo of Brazil, Indiana on the cover.
Although NJW’s Cuban Ensemble represents yet more Latin influence, North American classics are also part of the mix. For the past two years, she has recorded over 2900 tracks to accompany NJW’s “The Great American Songbook” series. For those who might not know, The Great American Songbook is a “loosely defined canon of significant early-20th-century American jazz standards, popular songs, and show tunes,” including works like “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and “It Don’t Mean a Thing (if it ain’t got that Swing)” encompassing writers as varied as Al Jolson and Duke Ellington When Covid hit, NJW’s creative thinking resulted in successful solutions.
Via ZOOM, family members of famed American songwriters reminisced about musicians like Hoagy Carmichael and Peggy Lee. They’ve had participants from all but four US states. ZOOM has also allowed for access to performers whose positive experience with NJW events has led to upcoming in-person performances by cabaret singers from New York City. Bimonthly performances, snappily titled “Snap on 2 and 4” continue, along with one-shot masterclasses, 6-week courses, and more for all ages. But, as the old folks say, the “all ages” part is “more than a notion.” Jazz AM offers delightful Saturday morning interactive experiences for kids, including puppet shows. Lori’s voice lightens as she recalls pleasant memories of children squealing with joy as they learn about artists like Bessie Smith and Charlie Parker.
Forthcoming events for July 2022 include an online Jazz masterclass with drummer Chester Thompson of the renowned jazz-fusion band Weather Report and the hit rock band Genesis (ZOOM, 11–12:30, July 16); “Life and Music of Horace Silver” part of the Jazz on the Move series that features lecture-performances at varied venues (3 pm, July 17 at the Frist); the debut of Juilliard student Tyler Bullock and his Quintet (in person or streamed live: 7:30pm, Saturday, July 23 at NJW’s Buchanan St campus); and sax player Rahsaan Barber (7:30 pm, Friday, July 29, NJW). To learn more, donate, or volunteer, see the Nashville Jazz Workshop website.
Y Kendall is a Stanford-educated musicologist, specializing in dance history who recently earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Columbia University, studying nonfiction writing with Ben Ratliff and Margo Jefferson. Kendall’s diverse works have been published in Alchemy: Journal of Translation, Columbia Journal, Mitos Magazín, The Hunger Mountain Review, and The Salt Collective, among others. Born and raised in Tennessee, Kendall now lives near Nashville, freelancing as a flutist and writer, while caregiving for relatives.