jazz on the porch

New Heights front porch concert series jazzes up the holidays

New Heights front porch concert series jazzes up the holidays

COVID 5 Heights front porch jazz
Natalie Gaynor jazzes up the holidays on a Heights front porch. Photo courtesy of Margaret Pichon

Performers love to say that "the show must go on." It's both an anthem to their own work ethic, and also a gift to their audiences.

That's part of the spirit behind the Tunes on 10th concert series, which offers a holiday celebration Sunday, December 6 at 4:30 pm. The performance takes place on Margaret Pichon's front porch, 621 West 10th St., on the corner of West 10th and Waverly in The Heights.

The COVID 5 brass quintet, joined by a drummer and bassist, offer holiday tunes and their rendition of the Duke Ellington Nutcracker, a jazz-infused take on the Tchaikovsky favorite.

The concert is free, although tipping is appreciated and encouraged.

French horn player Spencer Park, who is usually found in the pit for the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras, is the founder of the quintet and has become the de-facto booking agent for musicians in the porch series, which began this past May.

"I met with Margaret in the spring, and since then I've put a bunch of musicians on her porch," he tells CultureMap. "Woodwinds, a jazz combo, clarinetists. This will be the COVID 5's third appearance. It's been great."

Parks formed the quintet from fellow musicians who found themselves without regular work as the pandemic killed large group gatherings. The Tunes on 10th series allowed musicians to come together to do what they do best, in front on an audience that was masked and socially distant. 

"Everyone is dying to be out in their neighborhoods, to be together," says Parks. "And we can't do that now. So, this is a platform where we can get sense of community in responsible way and take part in a live event. People crave that, and I think that's why this is so special."

Pichon agrees.

"Our neighborhood loves it!" she says. "The people who've come have been so grateful to hear live music, and they've been so generous in supporting the musicians. And everyone's been respectful of being socially distant and wearing masks. We're on a big corner where there is lots of space, so people sit on the grass and the edge of the street. I love my porch, and it's been wonderful to have this great music on my porch, and sharing it with others."

Pichon encourages all audience members to bring a chair, a blanket, a beverage and a mask. Everyone is welcome, whether they live in the neighborhood or not.

Sunday's concert, says Parks, is one that will get the audience into the holiday spirit.

"I'm used to playing 40 Nutcrackers with the Houston Ballet, and this year we're not playing any, so it helps me get my Nutcracker fix," he jokes. "And people will recognize the Duke Ellington arrangement of the Nutcracker overture. And there are other pieces, like the Russian Trepak and the Sugar Plum Fairy, which here is called the Sugar Rum Cherry, that have these great, quirky jazz arrangements. Some of them fiddle with the chord progression and offer a different take on the original. I'm excited about doing it."

Natalie Gaynor, normally a violinist with the Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet orchestras, and who's taken part in the Tunes on 10th series says she loves the intimacy of the concerts.

"The best part is being so close to the audience and getting to see their reactions to what we're playing," she notes. "Usually we're in the pit at the Wortham Theater Center playing into the dark audience, so this is a big change."

Her next concert on Pichon's porch is set for December 13, playing holiday favorites and with some Danish folk music and other classical pieces, as long as the weather cooperates. 

"This has been a silver lining to the cancellation of our seasons," she says.

McKenna Jordan, a violinist with Divisi Strings, who's played the porch series with The Amp'd Quartet agrees.

"So many of us have been creative in doing Zoom recordings and doing recordings for churches to be broadcast, but there haven’t been many opportunities to perform live," she explains. "It was really special to perform for nearly 200 people who brought out lawn chairs and camped out for an evening of music."

Parks says the concert series will take a break in January, and start back up again in early 2021. And he said he plans to continue the Tunes on 10th series even after musicians return to their regular playing. Concerts may not  be as frequent, but the series has been fun for everyone, so he's eager to keep a good thing going.

For that, Pichon is delighted: "Who’d have thought something so awesome would come out of a pandemic?"