The Place that Tom Built
A trumpet player creates a space for the spirit of jazz that’s the cat’s meow
By Rob Emproto
“If jazz were a person, it would be the person you’d want to have as a best friend. Jazz would be the person your mom or dad would want you dating. Jazz would be that person that you would go to when you’re looking for a confidant. And the reason why jazz is important is because of those characteristics that jazz embodies.”
With those words, Tom Manuel — an endowed professor in the Department of Music at Stony Brook University — begins each incoming “History of Jazz” class he teaches at Stony Brook. And those words also provide the foundation of all his efforts as director of The Jazz Loft, an innovative and creative museum and performing arts space he founded in Stony Brook Village, which joins jazz performance, jazz preservation and jazz education in celebration of the past, present and future.
“When we first started The Jazz Loft, we had to really think about our programming,” said Manuel, a trumpet player and jazz artist-in-residence in the Department of Music. “What are the needs of the community? What can we bring? We continue to do this every year.”
Manuel has been thinking about jazz from a very early age, from the first time he heard it at a family event as a child.
“I clearly remember lying on the grass and hearing a DJ play Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood,’” recalled the Lake Ronkonkoma, New York, native. “I was hooked from that moment on.”
After becoming proficient on the trumpet, Manuel could always find other like-minded local musicians to play with, whether it was the music of swing dance or big bands, honing his craft for audiences ranging from South Shore fishermen to hardened bikers.
Years later, what began in 2016 as an effort to preserve Long Island’s rich jazz history and pass an appreciation of the genre on to a new generation, has grown into a community pillar that few could have imagined. With its combined mission of preservation, education and performance, The Jazz Loft — one of only five jazz museums in the United States — is a unique source of memorabilia that includes archives, instruments and much more from the greatest jazz musicians of their day. The Jazz Loft is also brought to life through 160 performances a year attended by up to 1,000 concertgoers a month.
Manuel said The Jazz Loft’s unexpected cross-generational, cross-demographic appeal has been a big part of its success.
“It’s interesting when we are reflecting and looking at what we do and comparing ourselves to other museums and venues,” said Manuel. “We’ve really defied general demographics for museums both in New York and in the country for performing arts venues. It’s usually an older and predominantly white base. But the other day, for example, we had parents bringing kids as young as 5, we had middle school students, we had high school students, we had older people, and we had a diverse audience. It’s really nice to see that younger contingency coming out and embracing jazz. That’s how we keep it alive.”
Focus on the Future
One novel way Manuel helps pass jazz onto a younger generation is through a forward-looking initiative called the Youth Board, composed of a group of seven young students, alumni and performers who actively contribute to The Jazz Loft’s daily management and programs.
“The Jazz Loft Youth Board has been in place for about a year now,” he said. “It goes back to the question of: How do we expose the next generation to jazz? How do we keep this alive? How do we connect? We just let them loose and said, ‘Let us hear your ideas.’ And then we started to fine-tune and focus and come up with projects they could do.”
One of the first projects the board produced was SBU Talent Live, a night of music featuring Stony Brook student performers that was offered to the community in February 2023. Working independently with Manuel’s guidance, the Youth Board booked the performers, secured a sponsor to fund the event so it could be offered at no charge to attendees, and implemented its own advertising campaign.
“We learned so much from them about how to really communicate with younger people,” said Manuel. “It’s not an ad in the paper anymore; it’s through things like TikTok and other modern ways to connect.”
One of the members of the Youth Board is Matthew Miller ’23, music performance, and a master’s student in the business program. Miller first met Manuel in a precollege program, even before coming to Stony Brook in Fall 2019. When an internship at The Jazz Loft became available the summer of his freshman year, he applied.
“I worked for Tom that summer as an intern, and that was a lot of fun,” he said. “We managed the stages and did all the prep work. I saw how he handled the venue space and the outside events. It was very hands-on work and it was a great opportunity to see the ins and outs of venue management.”
The experience led to a part-time position at The Jazz Loft, one that would bring him onto the team that produced SBU Talent Live. Miller described his participation as a valuable learning experience, especially as he considers a career in music and possibly venue management.
“That event entailed a lot of work, much more than I thought it would,” he said. “We had to coordinate with the clubs, get transportation, manage the venue and find a sponsor. We’d talk to Tom and he would give us feedback. And once we had an idea that was tested and tried, we’d move on with that.”
Blast From the Past
Much of The Jazz Loft’s success can be attributed equally to Manuel’s laser focus on outreach and an “out-of-the-box” approach in reaching new fans. As he considered new community-focused programming, Manuel hit on a need that’s increasing not only in Stony Brook, but also everywhere.
“There are a lot of people taking care of folks that are battling some form of memory loss, whether it be Alzheimer’s or dementia, and there’s not a lot of attention placed on the caregiver,” he said. “I knew that music was therapeutic.”
To address that need, Manuel developed the “Young at Heart” program, a midday music series that takes place the first Wednesday of every month. Each performance focuses on a different musical theme. Manuel described music memory as a “door to a room” for those suffering memory loss.
“Someone might say, ‘Oh, that was my wedding song,’ which then could open a door that makes them remember their wife’s name,” he said. “It’s amazing the transformation that can happen. We also realized that the space is really nice and that while individuals that are suffering from memory loss could be enjoying a performance in our period 1940s main room, caregivers could be having a bit of a respite. They could be talking with other people that are in the same situations as them.”
Miller Place, Long Island, residents George and Phyllis Taibi, both Stony Brook graduates, are among The Jazz Loft’s devoted fans.
“We were here for the grand opening in 2016 and have been volunteering ever since,” said Phyllis Taibi. “Every program they do here is wonderful. I just love seeing all the people enjoying the music that they grew up with, and I’m one of them. It’s a spiritual place that never ever fails to please.”
George Taibi mentioned the impact The Jazz Loft has had on a family member. “I bring my cousin who’s close to 90 years old here,” he said. “We try to get here every month and it’s a delight to see her light up when she knows she’s coming. She sees the place and recognizes the building. She’ll sit here and listen to the music; she’ll sing and move. Tom has created a very special place here. I call it ‘The Place That Tom Built.’ He’s the inspiration, and the perspiration.”
Beyond the attendees, the experience has been transformational for the performers as well.
“We’ve been doing this for several years and it’s developed into a really nice monthly concert series that draws a vibrant audience,” said Keenan Zach ’15, music performance, and bass player in the Young at Heart Trio. “It’s common for us to be playing to a near-packed room, and it’s nice to play for people who have such appreciation for what we do who really connect with the music in a different way. A lot of people enjoy what they experience at The Jazz Loft, but these concerts are designed for people who are of a certain age demographic, and they really connect with the music in a specific and unique way. It’s part of how they formulated their identity. This is music that has a special place in their heart and when we perform it for them, that shows.”
Manuel said most of the students he works with are in SBU’s Department of Music, and the jazz program specifically. And while the majority of those students are in the graduate program, he’s noticed a marked increase in undergraduates who are enrolling in the Jazz minor.
“These are students who are pursuing careers in science or medicine or law, but they’re recognizing that music is part of their life, and they don’t want that to disappear,” he said.
Concurrently, he said, it’s interesting to see musicians recognizing a world that might have a place for them on the other side of the instrument.
“It could be something like ‘I don’t want to just play the trombone, I kind of like the business side. How can I connect a business degree to music?’” Manuel said. “Or maybe a lawyer gets into copyrights or royalties. I think in the spirit of jazz, if we’re willing to collaborate and we’re willing to improvise a bit, it’s a great way to say you could be a part of this music. But it may be in a nontraditional way. Not on the bandstand but behind the scenes.”
And all these things are examples of why jazz is important, relevant and timeless, said Manuel, completing an earlier thought.
“Jazz is patient. Jazz is collaborative. Jazz is about the whole group, not just the one. That’s teamwork. Jazz teaches trust. What makes jazz completely different than any other music is the element of improvisation spontaneously creating. You don’t know what’s happening next, which means you have to trust each other. Which means sometimes when someone’s struggling, you need to support them. In jazz, we sacrifice ourselves for the good of everybody. In order to do that you need to listen really hard. Which means sometimes you need to stop talking. Jazz is not all about me; it’s about us. Jazz is about nurturing a very fine balance that equates to the common good of everybody. When I think of those characteristics, man, if we applied that to life…”
To learn more about The Jazz Loft and to see its full schedule of upcoming shows, visit thejazzloft.org.