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November 16, 2004
Guitarist Paul Renz remembers when the local jazz scene was thriving, back in the late 1970s. The epicenter was the Judge’s Chambers on Monticello Avenue but that wasn’t the only place.
“I had a steady gig at the Potpourri,” he told me earlier this month. “I dug that little restaurant at the corner of Princess Anne and Colley [where Magnolia Steak now resides]. I played Cogan’s and the Jewish Mother, and I played out at Military Circle, there was the Sheraton or something. I think there were more places to play back then.”
There definitely were more places showcasing live jazz around here twenty five years ago, but Renz has gone on to carve out a musical life for himself far from his native Norfolk. He’s lived in Minneapolis for the last ten years, but he’s coming back home with his band this week for a few gigs in the old hometown.
On Thursday night, he’ll lead his quartet in the lounge at Kincaid’s in MacArthur Center. Friday night finds him performing at the Unitarian Church on Yarmouth Street. After a private party Saturday night, he’ll participate in a jazz vespers service at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church Sunday evening.
He was last here in November, 2002, at the now defunct Blues Alley, and he’s been taking his working group out on an east coast mini-tour every two years since he moved to the Twin Cities.
“My wife brought me here,” he explains of the move north. “She’s an advertising copywriter and she lived here in the Midwest and worked in Minneapolis prior to moving to Virginia. We met and married two years later in ’93, and she got a great job offer back here.
“She loved Minneapolis and she convinced me after many protracted and difficult conversations. We had just bought a house on New Jersey Avenue in Colonial Place and I was established in town. That stuff is hard to give up. It’s hard for any musician to do that. You relocate without any connections. It’s harrowing---making the club scene, finding cats to play with and getting teaching jobs, which is just highly competitive.”
Paul Renz had taken musical risks before. A 1970 graduate of Granby High School, he had grown up listening not only to the hits of the day, but also to the big band sounds his father loved and to classical music.
“My grandmother on my mother’s side was a concert pianist, so she did the classical repertoire. I was exposed to that big-time. I loved that music and I still do. I’ve played classical guitar a lot and studied it as well. For the last ten or fifteen years I taught a lot of classical guitar, but it’s a different technique.
“When I was around fourteen, I had lessons for about a year. But I also studied different instruments. Earlier in my life I studied the piano and the French horn. I took lessons from the school. But I never took off doing that as a kid, and I certainly wasn’t exceptional in any way. I kinda got bored quickly.”
He played in a rock band in high school called Nexus that included a bassist who has become a mainstay of the local jazz scene, Dave Hufstedler. The drummer was Steve Morrisette, now best known as a widely published photographer.
“We went to Guantanamo and worked for some famous booking agent down there,” he recalls. “We played all the Navy bases. We played Zephyr---did you ever hear of that band---Savoy Brown, B. B. King, the Rolling Stones; Crosby, Stills & Nash; King Crimson. It was pretty broad. He wanted to transform us into one of those bands that all wears the same clothing.”
Band member Kurt Golden went off to Berklee College of Music in Boston after graduation from high school, and turned Renz on to jazz when he came home to visit. Renz subsequently put together his own trio and began gigging locally while working with disadvantaged youth for the YMCA. But he wanted to develop further as a musician. So in 1982, he headed up to Berklee himself.
“When you’re 29 years old, it’s kind of a life changing decision,” he says. “I was not happy with where I was musically, and I’m not the kind of guy who seeks out instruction on a private basis, like going to a better guitar player in town and taking lessons. So I had to go the institutional route. I just came to a point where I felt stifled and underdeveloped, and I felt woefully underprepared to practice my craft. It took me a long time to build up my courage.
“It was an epiphany for me. I went there like a blank slate; I was gonna do anything that you tell me to do. It was like a vow that I made, and it was an amazing time in my life. I stayed up there for six years because I went through a master’s degree at the New England Conservatory. And it just changed my life; it changed everything about me musically. I was really an infant when I went. I lived like a monk. I just ate, drank and slept music.
“I love basketball and I didn’t even go see the Celtics. I was a music disciple, a music snob. That’s all I did. It was an ascetic experience. I think I saw a girl maybe once a month.”
When he returned to Hampton Roads, he taught at the Governor’s School in Norfolk until his move to the north country. These days, he’s the Director of Jazz Studies at the West Bank School of Music in downtown Minneapolis, in addition to teaching jazz guitar at the MacPhail Center for Music. He keeps busy directing, writing and arranging for jazz ensembles at the schools, and he keeps his classical composing chops honed with occasional commissions for choral and orchestral groups.
This year he released a fine new CD, Hubbub, featuring an unusual front line of tenor saxophone and harmonica. The quartet he’s bringing to town this week includes the rhythm section on that recording as well as the harmonica player, Clint Hoover.
“He’s a local treasure,” Renz says of Hoover. “He was recently rated in the top five in the world for jazz harmonica. He’s an awesome player, and he’s on the faculty with me at the West Bank School.”
Hubbub shows Paul Renz to be an accomplished guitarist and inventive composer. This week he and his mates from Minneapolis will stir up a jazz hubbub right here in Norfolk.
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