The Zal Gaz Grotto is a Masonic lodge offering traditional American food, a sensibly stocked bar, and live entertainment. While only Master Masons are eligible for membership in Zal Gaz’s Mystic Order of Veiled Prophets of the Enchanted Realm, most events at the Grotto are open to the public–including, on most Monday nights, jazz by the Paul Keller Orchestra.
Originally tucked into a rented loft at Main and Washington, the organization has occupied its own building on W. Stadium Blvd. since 1958. Were it not for its landmark silver sign with black lettering, the Grotto could easily be mistaken for a VFW hall.
Thirty years at the helm of a consistently active big band have given Paul Keller the air of a benevolent sea captain. When discussing or performing the music that is central to his life, his brown eyes gleam with a touch of gold. Watching him steer his fourteen-piece big band while playing the hell out of his bass is a fine way to unwind on a Monday evening.
The Paul Keller Orchestra is an engine propelled by master drummer Pete Siers. Its mechanism is fitted with trumpeters who pull no punches, growling trombones that hover and swoop, and a front line of adaptable saxophonists, capable of sprouting flutes or transforming themselves into clarinetists. The players listen to each other’s solos, nodding with raised eyebrows, frowning and laughing at cleverly executed passages. Well before the first set is over, the PKO has me feeling happy as a clam at high water.
A committed educator and staunch advocate for upcoming talent, Keller regularly cedes the stage to what he calls “young jazzers.” As the PKO breaks for refreshment and rejuvenation, a swarm of neatly attired college-age instrumentalists take their seats onstage, ready to perform under the direction of U-M jazz professor and Count Basie alumnus Dennis Wilson, who gestures at them with an outstretched arm and pronounces, “This is the future of jazz.”
Later, Keller’s multigenerational mission prevails even after most of the student musicians have packed up their instruments and vacated the premises, followed by their parents and friends. A handful of young stalwarts opt to stay on and gain firsthand experience by sitting in with the Paul Keller Orchestra.
PKO plays at the Grotto every Monday in January, including a special thirtieth anniversary performance on Friday, Jan. 4.
This article has been corrected since it was published in the January 2019 Ann Arbor Observer. The date of the PKO’s 30th anniversary show has been corrected.