For most jazz fans, the festival experience means spending a few days and nights hanging with friends, sipping a little wine or champagne and grooving to the sounds of favorite artists, hopefully discovering a new musical treasure here and there. But more and more festivals are moving beyond just fun in the sun or under the stars, developing rich educational agendas designed to cultivate the jazz we’ll be listening to tomorrow. Among the major fests that go heavy on the learning in between or after the jamming are the First Energy Berks Jazz Festival in Reading, Pennsylvania and Utah’s Park City Jazz Festival, as well as Jazz Aspen Snowmass, whose events are held at the base of lush green ski slopes in tourist friendly Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado.
Now in its 14th year, JAS features two major musical weekend events in late June and over Labor Day sandwiched around the heart of the festival, the JAS Academy Summer Sessions, held this year in Snowmass from July 19-26. Advertised as the nation’s only all-scholarship jazz residency program, the ninth annual Summer Sessions featured master classes by jazz masters Russell Malone, Benny Green, Eddie Palmieri and Tierney Sutton, joining Program Director Loren Schoenberg and Artistic Director Christian McBride, who has held the chair since 2000. Previous participants ranged from the late Rosemary Clooney and Ray Brown to Arturo Sandoval, Herbie Hancock and Branford Marsalis.
This year, for the first time since the program’s inception, JAS selected a group of five bands, instead of individuals, to participate in four categories—Mainstream with vocalist (the U.K. Bradley Webb Trio and California’s Gerald Clayton Trio); Soul-Jazz Groove (the East-West Quintet, with members from New York and L.A.); Latin Jazz (Insight, from Connecticut); and New Orleans (Adonis Rose Quintet).
“It’s a very intense program, and the level of playing from the individual musicians we selected in the past has always been incredible,” says JAS Founder and Executive Producer Jim Horowitz. “But it never seemed long enough for each person to receive enough quality time from our masters, so we decided to try the group approach. The plan was to create a lab setting where these ensembles from different backgrounds could listen, interact and be challenged to move out of their comfort zones. The ongoing hope is that exposure to other styles and genres will broaden these student’s musical horizons.”
For Horowitz, the early years of JAS — which he patterned after the “European village oriented festival” concept of the 26 year old French event Jazz Marciac — were focused on survival, but once the event was established, the educational element began taking shape. “This was not part of my original vision for the festival, but it has become a vital part of Jazz Aspen Snowmass and an important way to keep the traditions of jazz alive for the next generation,” he says. “At some point the idea of starting a jazz school, devoted solely to performance and education, became a logical next step. We received an initial $100,000 grant from the Danny & Sylvia Fine Kaye Foundation, and then began an association with the Thelonius Monk Institute. We’ve hosted 20-25 students each year who match our main criteria — that they be not only exceedingly gifted but also have demonstrated a commitment to pursuing jazz performance as a career.”
The JAS Academy Summer Sessions have a regular structure of activities allowing for practice, reflection and performance. McBride and Schoenberg host a series of morning jazz seminars, combo rehearsals and instrument sectionals, while afternoons include master classes taught by the attending artist faculty (including sectionals broken up by instrument) and later, performances by student bands in the JAS Sessions tent. In the evening, the students take to the local club scene, where they apply what they’ve learned (and, in the spirit of true jazz, hopefully stretch beyond these concepts) in public performances.
Horowitz draws upon his dual background as a pianist/vocalist and agent and manager for such artists as Monty Alexander and the late Ray Brown to teach a seminar on the nuts and bolts of the biz — including how to get gigs, and the importance of a positive and humble attitude. “I talk about smiling, getting the chip off your shoulder, the facts about getting work, all the things that make you realize it’s not enough to simply be a great musician,” he says. “The purpose here is to create a great experience for the potential jazz legends of tomorrow. It’s really an art form learned by experience, and our program has the feel of the passing of a torch and a real sense of legacy. It’s really all about sustaining the music and finding new ways for it to survive and thrive.”
Lew Fine, co-founder with his wife Arlene of the seven year old Park City Jazz Festival - whose musical events are held over a late August weekend (August 26-29 this year) at the Deer Valley Resort about 36 miles east of Salt Lake City — echoes Horowitz when speaking of the educational aspects of his own event. “The idea is to continue keeping our minds open to new and worthy talent,” he says. “The most gratifying thing is watching young children performing with expertise and talent, and know that you may be helping influence decisions they may make in their lives.”
While the Park City shows run from the afternoon through the night, the late mornings are devoted to one hour clinics (for both young students and interested adults) by visiting musicians at the local high school; past participants include T.S. Monk, Phil Woods, Arturo Sandoval, Rick Braun and Larry Carlton. This year’s slate included three members of the Lionel Hampton Orchestra and guitarists Gennaro Cannelora and Jeff Linsky. According to Fine, some 3,000 students have attended these sessions over the years.
Every March in Reading, some 70 miles west of Philly, the town plays host to the First Energy Berks Jazz Festival a ten day extravaganza featuring a wide slate of superstars from all jazz denominations. The festival is also a community based event which provides numerous opportunities for young aspiring jazz musicians to hone their crafts. Some of the educational events this past year: a small combo contest held at Reading High School for high school and college students and a free jazz concert and clinic featuring Berks County saxman Tim Price and pianist Rachel Z’s trio. Berks also has played host three years running to Gerald Veasley’s “Bass Boot Camp,” which offers a unique weekend of workshops, performances and master classes taught this year by its host along with Gary Willis, Victor Wooten and Adam Nitti.
JAZZ ASPEN SNOWMASS: Held for the second year under a massive, triangular white tent in Aspen’s Rio Grande Park, JAS’ late June festival (24-27) featured a lineup so wonderfully diverse that the fist time attender might have wondered why they stick with the jazz moniker. The Thursday night opening act, Wynton Marsalis, whose fiery straight ahead set featured the frenetic tenor work of Walter Blanding and a Dixieland/gospel closing medley of “The Old Rugged Cross/Down By The Riverside,” got things off to a true jazz start. For more adventurous fusion fans, the wild and densely percussive organ-bass-drum machinations of Medeski, Martin & Wood filled the jazz bill on Sunday. But the greatest enjoyment — and most enthusiastic reponses — came from headliners who reflect Horowitz’s take on his event as “an American music festival with a jazz heart.” Natalie Cole wowed ‘em with an eclectic set of her Unforgettable era standards and her old 70’s R&B hits, plus an encore version of the U2/B.B. King classic “When Love Comes To Town”; Saturday night featured soul and gospel legend Al Green throwing roses and kisses to the crowd while musically preaching “Love and Happiness” and conducting a singalong “Amazing Grace” as if he was using the tent for revival purposes. The spiritual element continued at noon on Sunday with a rousing performance by gospel legends Mighty Clouds of Joy. Green’s opening act Shelby Lynne did country rock, while Cole’s opener Curtis Stigers performed his trademark compelling acoustic jazz twists on classic pop tunes.
Another notable aspect of the festival was its impressive slate of afternoon and late night performances, in a smaller tent among the shops of Aspen and at several five star hotels. Among the best of these were The Soul Survivors (Cannonball Adderly styled soul-jazz by Ernie Watts, Cornell Dupree and Les McCann), the sexy and exotic, acoustic jazz driven vocal stylings of San Francisco based Jenna Mammina and the scorching Latin fusion of Yerba Buena.
** More smooth jazz artists should take the lead of veteran R&B influenced guitarist Doc Powell, whose latest Heads Up release Cool Like That combines the funky sizzle and easy grooving of his previous hits with colorful ventures that take risks beyond mainstream radio readiness. Before becoming a solo artist, he jammed it up with soul legends like Luther Vandross, Aretha Franklin and Grover Washington, Jr. and established himself as a grooving presence on the smooth scene with his 1994 album named after a Grover hit, Inner City Blues. His 1996 disc Laid Back pretty much defines the cool side of what he does, and remains his biggest radio success to date. The new collection has its share of instantly likeable potential singles, from the Kirk Whalum punched “Push” to the gently lyrical “Sweet 6.” But it’s his other demonstrated influences that push it over the top — his affinity for classic rock (a gospel-tinged “Let It Be”) and African rhythms (the soundscape and percussion dense “Hatujambo (We Are Well).” Powell continues to be inspired by the New York jazz scene where he cut his teeth in the 80s. His label debut 97th and Columbus was named after the classic Manhattan haunt Mikell’s and featured tributes to Wes Montgomery, Chet Atkins, et al.
The new album’s “To The East” takes us uptown for more snazzy, strutting Big Apple fusion. To quote another of his album titles, Don’t Let The Smooth Jazz Fool Ya! There’s more to Powell than first meets the ear.
Posted by Jonathan Widran at October 11, 2004 6:58 PM
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