Charlotte's difficulty attracting touring musicians is well-documented, and complaints about it often overshadow the city's own fertile music scene. Fight or flight is a typical reaction, and 31-year-old Sa-Idah Harley — who goes by "Sai" — knows this better than most. She's tried both on more than one occasion.
It's a good thing Harley, a classically trained jazz violinist and leader of the Sounds of Sai ensemble, decided to stick it out. Her Sai Musiq Jazz Series is an impressive part of her bigger commitment to Charlotte's resurgent jazz scene.
"I grew up like a lot of music students in New York, where you go to music school and you hang out in the jazz clubs," says Harley, who was raised in the Bronx by her grandparents and studied music at the prestigious LaGuardia High before moving to Charlotte in 2002. After one stint back in New York City and another at Howard University, in Washington, D.C., Harley returned and told herself, "'Hey, I'm going to be here, why not make it what I want it to be?'"
Harley sees three components to that — gigging, teaching and booking. She hopes to revive her own instructional studio next summer, but for now teaches through the Tosco Music Studio. You can find her ensemble playing regularly around town, and often with some of today's best national and international players — artists she's booked.
Top-flight talent — pianists Cyrus Chestnut, Aaron Goldberg and Robert Glasper; saxophonist Branford Marsalis; trombonist Robert Trowers; drummer Ronnie Burrage; trumpeter Jon Faddis; and violinist Christian Howes — performed in town over the past year as part of the series. The event has relocated from its original home at Petra's Piano Bar in Plaza Midwood to Pewter Rose in South End for that venue's dining, accessibility and all-ages advantages. Concerts this fall include Stephen Gordon Group (Oct. 9), Calvin Edwards Organ Trio (Oct. 30) and the Ocie Davis Trio (Nov. 13).
Harley knows a thriving scene depends as much on local talent as it does recognizable names. "I have not been doing all of this alone," she insists. "This series has been a group effort from the very beginning — my name is just on the marquee."
For jazz fans more on the "free" or avant-garde tip, local reedsman Brent Bagwell of Great Architect/The Eastern Seaboard books some of the biggest names in the field; check the Great Architect website for guerrilla-style bookings around town.