Sitting in the bar at Walkers Grill on a Sunday night, you can tell when the out-of-towners walk in.
They generally pause just inside the door and stand there staring at the scene before them. It’s almost always crowded, with a clientele running from teenagers to people in their 70s or 80s. Walkers has an elegant, uptown feel, and there’s excitement in the air. In the corner of the bar area, in front of the big picture window looking out on North 27th Street, jazz musicians, really good jazz musicians, are just tearing it up.
You look at the out-of-towners again and they seem to be thinking, “This is Billings? Billings, Montana? On a Sunday night?”
It sure is. And a few blocks away, on most Thursday nights of the year, there is a scene almost as surprising, involving some of the same musicians you see at Walkers.
The other place is the Garage Pub at the Yellowstone Valley Brewing Company, a cavernous industrial space where empty kegs and pallets of empty bottles tower over a big stage.
Most Thursdays, the Garage is crowded, too, with 75 to 100 jazz fans listening to a stage full of musicians, some of them seasoned pros with hundreds of gigs under their belts, some of them raw high-schoolers new to performing in public.
Walkers has had Sunday jazz for 15 years and the Garage Pub has been putting on the Thursday night jazz jam for three years. But regulars will tell you: this year the crowds have been bigger and more consistent, there are more musicians, and there is more great music than ever.
“What’s crazy is that news of this has spread to other places,” guitarist Alex Nauman said. “I meet all these musicians from all over.”
Nauman has had a lot to do with the jazz renaissance in Billings. The 30-year-old from Basin, Wyo., is one of the hosts of the Garage Pub’s jazz jams, a regular at Walkers, a busy music teacher and a jazz evangelist whose enthusiasm for the music is as bottomless as it is genuine.
Nauman came up with the idea of the Thursday jam three years ago, teaming up with bassist Parker Brown and percussionist Brad Edwards to pitch the idea to George Moncure, the owner of Yellowstone Valley Brewing.
“I just wanted to have a place to play jazz where we could really go crazy,” Nauman said. He also wanted a place where young jazz students — he and Brown both give lessons at their Allied Music studio — could play in front of people. And of course Nauman also hoped to build an audience for jazz.
“All those things at the same time,” he said. “I feel like we’ve accomplished quite a few of those goals.”
It took some doing.
“That first year, there were some dark nights,” Nauman said. “I remember one night we made, like, 30 bucks.” That’s when they were making $1 dollar off every pint of beer sold.
But they stuck with it, putting up posters, passing out handbills and promoting the shows on social media, and this year the jam just took off.
“Even through this incredibly bad winter, people still showed up,” Edwards said.
Moncure said the jams have been attracting at least 75 people a week, sometimes 100 or more. If you want to see the Thursday night jam session, tonight’s your last chance until next fall. The jam, which runs from 5 to 8 p.m., has always taken a summer break.
Moncure said the popularity of jazz in Billings grew from a confluence of different factors. The key one is that Nauman, Brown and Edwards are all such talented, hardworking musicians. They inspire other musicians to give it their best and they fire up audiences with their enthusiasm and musicianship.
Another factor is the growing involvement by high school and college students. Besides the students from Allied Music, there are students from trumpeter Jeff Long’s music classes at Senior High School. Long and Nauman also teach a Tuesday night jazz improv class at Senior High, sponsored by Arts Without Boundaries.
One of the improv students is Hayden Duncan, an alto sax player who is a senior at Senior High. He was introduced to the rudiments of jazz as early as the fifth grade, but he had never experienced the thrill of a playing for live audience, outside of school concerts, until this winter.
Long had encouraged him to join the jam, but “I never really had the courage,” he said. But then his friend, guitarist Art Baker, who had been to a jam earlier in the season, suggested they go to the Garage, just to listen.
“We were just blown away by the musical talent of those guys,” Duncan said of the house band, consisting of Nauman, Brown and Edwards. He was inspired enough to go back the next week with his sax.
“It was absolutely exhilarating,” he said, and he’s been back to play six or seven times since that debut, usually with three or four other friends from Senior High. He credited the house band for making the experience so rewarding.
“What we do wouldn’t sound nearly as good if they weren’t so talented and so tight,” he said.
There are also college players, musicians studying under Tony Hammond at Rocky Mountain College and John Roberts at Montana State University Billings. Hammond and Roberts have distinctly different styles, but both are excellent trombonists who also happen to sing very well. Some of the best jazz jams of the year have seen the two of them standing side by side on the Garage stage, inspiring and goading each other on.
Moncure said Roberts’ return to Billings added a new flavor to the local jazz scene. Roberts is a native of Malta who studied music at MSUB and then played funk and Latin jazz professionally in Los Angeles for 16 years.
Besides sitting in with musicians at Walkers and the Garage Pub, Roberts started a new Latin jazz band called John Roberts and Pan Blanco, based on the Spanish nickname — White Bread — he picked up in L.A., where he was often the only Anglo player in a crowd of musicians.
Roberts said he was pleasantly surprised by the music scene in Billings, and by the quality of the musicianship. In L.A., he said, he was always a sectional player, meaning he rarely got to cut loose and solo. Now he’s soloing on piano and trombone, singing, arranging and leading a band.
“I played more jazz in the last nine months than I played in L.A. in the last five years,” he said.
He has been most impressed by all the young musicians performing here. High school music programs always encourage their students to get out and play in public, Roberts said, but he’s never seen anything like this level of involvement.
The Latin music Roberts introduced has encouraged more dancing and bigger crowds, and it just seems to fire up an audience.
“It’s like a Duke Ellington tune,” Roberts said. “You can’t not swing it.”
At Walkers, jazz is played every Sunday of the year, from 7 to 10 p.m., with the exception of Super Bowl Sunday and the occasional holiday.
Bill Honaker, the owner of Walkers, started offering jazz 15 years ago, when he was still at Third Avenue North and North 27th Street. Honaker had jazz on Friday and Saturday nights at the old location, the idea being to bring in a few extra people and stay open a bit later on the weekends.
A jazz drummer himself, Honaker also wanted to play. He began by committing to offer jazz for at least a year.
“My goal was to make it break even,” he said. “And with jazz, it took a while.”
But he kept it going, switching over to Sunday nights after the move two blocks south to First Avenue North and North 27th. Honaker is behind the drums three out of four Sundays, joined by a stable of local musicians and jazz players from Missoula, Helena and Cody, Wyo., plus the occasional traveling musician from out of state.
On Sunday nights, Honaker said, “you get a whole new clientele, and 60 percent of them are really into the music. I don’t know if the crowd is younger, but it’s more of a hipster crowd.”
The jazz in the air seems to be having other influences as well.
Joanie Swords, the owner of Harper and Madison, a café and bakery, hadn’t sung since high school choir but got the itch to get back to it last year.
Though she didn’t know her well, Swords approached jazz singer Marian Booth Green, a regular performer in Billings who also sings at Walkers. They worked up some standards, including “I Am a Woman” and “Peel Me a Grape,” backed by pianist Joe Sullivan, drummer Mark McGiboney and bassist Robin Martinez, and performed at Harper and Madison on May 17 to a sellout crowd of 45, who were also treated to desserts and champagne.
Though she was so nervous she almost threw up at early rehearsals, Swords said, “I had a blast.”
She’s stays awfully busy in her kitchen but has managed to get out and listen to jazz at the Garage and Walkers, which helped inspire her decision to start singing again.
“I think that all contributes — to see that people want to hear music,” she said.
Sullivan, her pianist, also plays regularly at Walkers and the Garage and recently founded his own jazz sextet, Joe’s Little Big Band. He is another longtime Billings musician, and he and McGiboney get credit for first trying to start a jazz night at the Garage.
That was in 2007, but it only lasted during one fall and winter. The crowds weren’t too big and so it faded away. Who knows, though. Maybe if they had just stuck it out it would have gotten as big as the current incarnation.
Sullivan said it works now because there’s a big group of friendly, ego-less musicians who really like to play together, “and they’re working their asses off. It’s really fun.”
Brown, the bassist who also plays guitar and performs in a handful of different groups in different genres of music around town, said the scene has built on itself, and just keeps growing.
“One thing I’ve noticed in Billings is, when it becomes the thing to do, people will be there in a big way,” he said. And once the fans started showing up, the musicians got more serious, he said. “I think everybody kind of stepped up this year,” he said. “The consistency was a big part of this year.”
Nauman said the musicians keep it loose but give it everything they’ve got. They play “whatever feels right at that minute,” he said. “Whoever feels like playing something yells it out and we go.”
Two of the biggest jazz fans in Billings are Jim and Lillian Hartung, who met at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in 1974. If they’re in town, they rarely miss a show at Walkers or the Garage, or any other jazz show in town.
Jim Hartung, who remembers seeing Louis Armstrong at the Shrine Auditorium as a boy in 1956, said a big part of the scene right now is the number of talented musicians.
Lillian Hartung said what she likes best is the “fluidity” of the jazz scene, with old hands mentoring young players. “It’s wonderful to see another generation coming up,” she said.
Moncure said all the exposure for the young musicians has encouraged even more young people to start playing jazz, at Senior High and other schools.
“I think the good news is, there’s more to come,” Moncure said.
Editor’s Note: One hates to start listing names, for fear of leaving someone out, but it would be a shame not to mention a few other musicians we couldn’t squeeze into the story proper.
Let’s start with two percussionists — Gy Moody, who is always in the thick of things when music is being played in Billings, and Matt Devitt, who plays everything from heavy metal to classical music and is a standout jazz drummer.
And we can’t forget Mark Bryan, another great bassist, nor guitarist Jeff Troxel, of Cody, Wyo., and violinist Trevor Krieger, who often perform together. We invite readers to remind us, in the comment section, of all the good musicians we have neglected.