JazzSLC keeps American music alive • Salt Lake Magazine

Gordon Hanks did not grow up in a family of musicians. Raised by a single mother and grandmother, Hanks didn’t have enough money to buy an instrument or take private lessons, and he doesn’t recall listening to music much as a child. Decades later, however, Hanks is undoubtedly an influential figure in the Utah musical community, despite the fact that he still hasn’t chosen an instrument. As co-founder and producer of JazzSLC, he spent more than 27 years as a passionate evangelist and leader of jazz music in Utah. “Jazz is America’s music,” he says. “Our only real art form is jazz.” Hanks spread his love for American music and welcomed dozens of world-class musicians to perform in Utah.

Hanks’ love for jazz began in public school, of all places. When a music appreciation teacher at the now closed Granite High School in South Salt Lake introduced his class to the genre, Hanks was immediately captivated. He still remembers the album that hooked him, At the Pershing: But Not for Me by Ahmad Jamal. “This unique recording changed my life,” he says.

Throughout college and his career as the owner of Holladay Pharmacy, Hanks remained an avid fan of jazz music – he sold CDs at the drugstore and regularly listened to Wes Bowen’s late-night show KUER, All That Jazz. While there were a few live jazz venues in Utah in the 1990s, Hanks noticed that performances were dwindling. Along with his friend and jazz enthusiast Michael MacKay, he founded JazzSLC with a mission to bring the best jazz musicians in the world to the Beehive State. Neither had experience producing concerts, but through a mixture of passion and naivety, they pushed ahead anyway. “We were both so stupid, we didn’t know we couldn’t do it,” Hanks laughs.

Hanks and McKay sought advice from Lynn Skinner, who ran the Lionel Hampton Jazz Festival at the University of Idaho, and they contributed their own money to get the concerts started. They started small, with around 200 people at the inaugural performance. In an unusual move, the show’s first-ever performer, Gene Harris, helped contact and book other musicians. “Harris was the one who made the phone calls for me and said, ‘Those idiots in Salt Lake City don’t know anything about producing jazz concerts, but trust me, they’ll pay you,'” Hanks says. He recalls, with some embarrassment, that they invited some of the biggest names in jazz to perform in an unassuming hotel ballroom. (The concert series moved to its current home at the Capitol Theater in 2009.) Still, JazzSLC built a loyal following, and the caliber of musicians was no joke—the 1997-98 series, JazzSLC’s third season , included legends like Dave Brubeck, George Shearing, Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock.

JazzSLC’s Gordon Hanks (Photo by Adam Finkle/Salt Lake Magazine)

JazzSLC, which closes its 26th season, remains a must-visit house for jazz fans (no, not those jazz fans) in Utah. Although concerts have grown significantly since 1995, to stay afloat the nonprofit still relies on additional donations from season ticket holders, funds from the ZAP program, and large annual donations from an “angel of the jazz” anonymous which supports the series. Hanks is happy to stay behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, and while it might seem counterintuitive, he thinks it’s a key part of building a relationship with audiences and performers. “It’s about the art form and the artists,” he says.

Hanks proudly calls his musical tastes “mainstream” – JazzSLC favors a simple style, avoiding funk, fusion or avant-garde jazz. Its goal is to invite artists that both appeal to long-time fans and win over new converts. “The jazz we present isn’t the weird, esoteric stuff that sometimes people think jazz is,” he says. “They actually play music that you recognize.”

Hanks says that to keep the medium alive, connecting young audiences to jazz is key. “Listening to music on the radio, a CD or Spotify is fine, but a live performance is where you really understand what the art form is,” he says. Hanks and his wife Connie started a scholarship fund through their nonprofit, the GAM Foundation. For more than two decades, Gordon and Connie have supported jazz studies students at the University of Utah School of Music. (They still see many recipients at JazzSLC concerts.) The Hanks also cater to middle school, high school, and college teachers and band managers, offering discounted tickets to music students.

What does the future of JazzSLC look like? “I don’t really have a good answer to that,” Hanks admits. At 78, the remarkably energetic Hanks still runs JazzSLC with his daughter Amanda Lufkin, who serves as its executive director. He hopes to find someone who will carry on the legacy of JazzSLC, but any eventual successor needs very specific qualifications. “First, they have to do a lot of work without being paid,” Hanks says. “Number two, they have to be willing to invest money to keep a show alive. Number three, they have to have a passion and a love for the art form and do it just for that. No pressure right? “If I could find that person, I would hug and kiss them, but I haven’t found them yet.”

JazzSLC’s long-term prospects may still be in question, but for now Hanks is just happy to be back listening to his favorite music live and in person. Although it’s no secret that jazz is no longer central to pop music, Hanks has built a community of fans who care about the art form and has welcomed students who may be like him. , secret jazz fanatics just waiting for that first spark.

He has also formed relationships with his favorite artists, many of whom return regularly to perform at SLC. In a full-circle moment, Hanks now considers Jamal, the man who first inspired his deep love of jazz, a close friend. “I think the artists fully understand that this isn’t just another gig,” he says. “It’s something a bit special. And I think we get great performances because they love being here.

Pedro Martinez

On May 27, Pedrito Martinez will be the final performer of JazzSLC’s 2021-22 season. Martinez, a percussionist, has won acclaim for his lively and joyful style of Afro-Cuban jazz. Hanks asked Martinez back after a memorable performance by JazzSLC in 2019 – in a first for the series, audience members joined the band on stage to dance. “It’s one of the most high-energy, fun shows I’ve ever done,” says Hanks. For more ticket information, visit the JazzSLC website.


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