Jazz. The very word seems steeped in the smoky haze of nightclubs and the dim glow of neon martinis. It's a sound as fast and harrowing as a late-night taxi ride to the Blue Note, or as lonely as a saxophone blowing on a distant bridge.
But those are just a few pieces of jazz, the broad musical genre born in New Orleans a century ago and centered today in New York City.
In Toledo, where jazz enjoys a rich and vibrant heritage, the music is alive in many varied settings, from cozy clubs to elegant theaters to university recital halls.
And, once a week during the summer, the music dances lightly across the lush green lawn of Toledo Botanical Garden.
“This is a treasure!” said Jillian Hauenstein, sitting with her husband, Daniel, on a blanket during a recent Jazz in the Garden concert. “We love outdoor concerts and it's so beautiful here.”
“It's an idyllic setting,” Daniel added.
The couple, who are relatively new to the Toledo area, have been exploring the local music scene and, after living in several more-congested cities, were amazed by the ease of driving to the garden, parking, and strolling to the concert site.
“Everything is so accessible in Toledo,” Mr. Hauenstein said. “We definitely will be coming back for more jazz shows here.”
Like many visitors to the garden concerts, the Hauensteins enjoyed a picnic meal as they listened to vocalist Ramona Collins perform a set of perennial jazz favorites.
Many audience members are devoted jazz fans who flock to every concert they can squeeze into their schedules. But the Jazz in the Garden series, cosponsored by the Toledo Botanical Garden and the Toledo Jazz Society, also attracts a lot of casual fans who come to enjoy the beauty of nature as much as the music.
The crowds have numbered as high as 600 for a Thursday night concert, depending in large part on the cooperation of the weather. On the recent evening when Collins performed, the fading sun shimmered through a leafy canopy and temperatures hovered in the near-perfect mid-70s range.
“I like the setting,” said Diana Ott, seated in a lawn chair at the rear of the sprawling crowd alongside her friends Sandy Korn and Dorothy Franks. “This is my first time out here this year, but we've been here before. We support Toledo. And we really like [Toledo singer] Jean Holden.”
Jon Richardson, a Toledo lawyer and president of the board of the jazz society, said the garden concerts are among the organization's biggest draws, after the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival and the Toledo Jazz Orchestra's annual concert series.
“Look at the crowd,” he said, beaming. “There are people of all ages. There's ethnic diversity. This is one of the favorite things we do.”
“It's a real nice setting for a concert,” said trumpeter Scott Potter, who has performed at Toledo Botanical Garden with his own jazz band, the TJO, and singer Lori Lefebvre.
“It depends on the weather, but whenever I've been there it's been a beautiful evening,” Potter said. “That park is so nice, I really love it.”
Jori Jex, executive director of the TJS, said the weather is always a concern but that organizers have found that if it rains, it's better to move the concert into the garden's conference center than to reschedule it.
“We used to have rain dates but we've learned that you never really recoup your audience,” she said. “So now our shows are held rain or shine. The conference center only seats 150 or so, so it's not the same. But it's kind of intimate and fun.”
The first show of the season, scheduled for July 10, was supposed to be the 17-member Toledo Jazz Orchestra. But the weather played tricks on organizers.
The night before the show, meteorologists predicted severe thunderstorms, Jex said. With the large group requiring extra staging, and with some musicians traveling from Detroit and other outlying areas, the jazz society decided to play it safe and feature the TJO's four-person rhythm section inside the conference hall.
Like an unpredictable jazz solo, the weather took a drastic turn the day of the concert.
“It turned out to be a beautiful night,” Jex said with a sigh.
With the TJO one of the perennial favorites of the garden series, the jazz society decided to add an extra date and is bringing the full orchestra back for a concert on Aug. 28.
The series began in the summer of 1997 with four shows and has grown to eight concerts this year.
Admission is kept “very affordable,” Jex said, in order to encourage people who don't normally attend jazz events. Tickets are $6 for adults, $5 for students, and $4 for members of the Toledo Jazz Society or Toledo Botanical Garden.
Visitors are encouraged to bring lawn chairs, blankets, and picnic baskets - but no wine or other forms of alcohol, which is prohibited.
One of the primary goals of the garden series is to bring attention to the many top-notch musicians in Toledo, Jex said.
“We try to highlight local artists,” she said.
The lineup thus far has featured the Toledo Jazz Orchestra's rhythm section; pianist Mark Kieswetter and Atmospheric Disturbance; the Theresa Harris Quintet, and Ramona Collins. Scheduled this Thursday is the Bob Rex Jazz Quintet, followed by Jean Holden on Aug. 14; 6th Edition on Aug. 21, and the TJO on Aug. 28.
“When it's time for the last show, it's kind of sad,” Jex said, “because that means the summer's over.”