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In Good Hands

Woody Witt takes over Cezanne, and all of Houston sighs in relief

Just like every other club in town, Cezanne does what it can to survive. Every Thursday, Houston's only serious jazz hangout invites aspiring professional vocalists to its space to belt out a couple of tunes backed by a major-league ensemble. Crowds, lured inside by the prospect of seeing friends or coworkers under the spotlight, typically fill the smallish club to its 50-folk capacity. The good: Cezanne gets feet in the door. The bad: The people attached to these feet aren't necessarily open to potentially tasty jazz -- or at least as much as they're interested in chitchatting and laughing uproariously during especially quiet moments of songs.

Earlier this month, microphone in hand, pro vocalist and moderator of the night Cindy Scott began introducing Irving Berlin's "What Will I Do?" by looking in the direction of some rowdy patrons and talking directly to them as if she were their high school teacher. The pleasantly unruly had no idea they were being tastefully admonished; they just kept on giggling and gabbing. What was significant, though, was how saxophonist Woody Witt handled the situation. Standing on "stage," which isn't really a stage but an area cordoned off by microphone stands, Witt turned once, twice, three times in the direction of the thigh-slappers to try to make eye contact. After the third time, the softly coiffed Witt expressed his resignation to the rest of the band by shrugging his shoulders, saying, basically, let's just get on with it.

Witt's on-with-the-show reaction may help explain why, come this fall, he will be the guy responsible for Cezanne. Witt is replacing pianist and iron man Bob Henschen as Cezanne's artistic director. And like Henschen, Witt, by all accounts, understands that surviving in jazzland takes keen navigation skills: You have to remain true to the form while also attracting new audiences. Grinning and bearing a little disruption is part of the road test. Maintaining Henschen's standards while continuing Cezanne's storied tradition is the ultimate goal.

At the helm: Woody Witt understands that surviving in jazzland requires keen navigational skills.
At the helm: Woody Witt understands that surviving in jazzland requires keen navigational skills.

"This is the only true jazz club in Houston," said Witt, taking a breather between sets. "When you come here, you know you're gonna hear some form of jazz that you won't hear anyplace else."

No other venue works like Cezanne. Sure, other venues extort -- umm, we mean offer straight-ahead jazz. Brennan's brings in strolling instrumentalists for its weekend brunches (where you can have your orange juice straight, no chaser). Coffee joints like Brasil and No tsu oH pull together occasional groups of HSPVA grads now and then. And even Scott Gertner manages to finagle the smooth jazzers at his swank parlor to slip some traditional doozies into their sets every other waxing crescent moon.

But only at Cezanne is the straight-ahead musician emphasized so earnestly. Which is why filling the artistic director's chair with someone special is tantamount to voting for a congressional representative.

Witt is the right man for the job. Originally planning to study electrical engineering, he came to Houston from Omaha in 1987 on a full academic scholarship to the University of Houston. He graduated in 1992 with a degree in music. He completed his master's degree in music at University of North Texas in 1995, then returned to Houston that same year. He has worked as HSPVA's jazz director, taught at UH and Houston Community College, and earned his doctorate in music from UH. Off the transcripts, Witt can wail.

Before the vocalists even started warming up, Witt was on fire. He and band mates Gary Norian (piano), Thomas Helton (bass) and Tim Solook (drums) had engaged the growing audience by performing two instrumental numbers penned by Solook and Norian. In the middle of "Kit 'N Kaboodle," Norian's composition, Witt had taken the main melody line and turned it on its hard-bop head. He flurried, squealed and melodicized in front of, on top of and behind the beat. His mature Coltranean tone and technical mastery were at odds with his boyish look, a button-down shirt, sensible shoes and jeans. When he blew really hard, his already plump cheeks expanded into red balloons, and his eyebrows arched up over his eyeglasses. Satan probably never even got this hot.

The 31-year-old was one of Henschen's first choices as successor. Cezanne's, too. "Woody's the best replacement," said Armando Vazquez, general manager of Cezanne and its accompanying restaurant, the Black Labrador. "He knows about the music."

Witt also knows about sacrifice. Practically speaking, the artistic director position is thankless pro-bono work. "You have to be, above all else, a fair person," said Henschen. "If you break even, great. But the people who deserve to play should get to play." Henschen, who handled A.D. duties for three years nearly without a scratch, said he felt he had put off his own music too long for Cezanne's sake. He approached Witt about the job this summer. Witt accepted shortly thereafter. Which doesn't mean Henschen will never appear at Cezanne again. He will perform, he said, and until Witt proves successful, will avail himself to Witt for support.

The job is bloated with lots of time-consuming details. Witt is responsible for the club's bimonthly calendar, advertising, piano tunings, a planned Web site and, most important, the bookings. "Somebody has to continue this," he said. "This club needs to be sustained. You need someone with high musical standards to continue that legacy."

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