Like softly falling snowflakes that accumulate into a beautiful sight in the last breath of winter, jazz will soon be sprinkled over an entire city for an idyllic ten days. With a promise to be both memorable and soul-satisfying, the picture completes itself with the addition of local, regional, national and international performers and fans alike, instructional workshops by gifted virtuosos, the appetizing cuisine of jazz-minded chefs, and the beckoning ambiance of every club and restaurant in town.
Reading, Pennsylvania is gearing up for its 15th Annual Berks Jazz Fest, and the line-up of artists couldn’t be more exciting! Dates are set, venues are booked, and hotels and restaurants are preparing for the influx of people who will descend upon this city. The annual promotional day at Borders was held last Sunday, so those of us who live here know we are on the home stretch!
Dates of the festival are Friday, March 11th through Sunday, March 20th. There are ticketed and non-ticketed events throughout the ten days, and the schedule, along with great bios of the artists written by our own Jonathan Widran, can be seen at www.BerksJazzFest.com.
Main venues are the Wyndham Hotel, The Sheraton Hotel, the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, and the Scottish Rite Cathedral. In addition to the Sheraton Ballroom, the Sheraton is also home to Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base, which will also feature a number of shows. These are very familiar to those of us who live in the area and to returning fans.
But those who ‘drop in on Reading’ every year for the Berks Jazz Fest have surely begun to notice that in addition to the major venues, there’s an ever-widening circle of participation by the entire community in the excitement surrounding this festival.
To give you an idea of just how much community participation there is by now, try visiting any one or all one of the following locations during the festival. Each one will have some connection to the jazz music scene, typically a combination of live jazz performers and jazzy cuisine. A great blend of music and food, two favorite things in life for many of us, especially jazz fans who like to sit down and listen attentively to the music. (Though we sometimes dance in our seats and find it impossible to sit down for long!)
Here’s a listing to keep you hopping during your visit to Reading: places where jazz will surely be sprinkled in one form or another! Jimmy Kramer’s Peanut Bar, ViVa Good Life Bistro & Lounge, Adrienne’s at Centre Park, Café Waldorf, The Works at Wyomissing, PAL Center for the Arts, Albright College Wachovia Theatre, Maniaci’s Italian Bistro, Suburban Tavern and Restaurant, Bell Tower Salon Spa (sponsoring a Happy Hour), Borders Café, Boscov’s East Greenery Restaurant, Pike Café, Inn at Reading Ballroom, Evergreen Country Club, Institute of the Arts, and at least 5 different local churches. Many of these places have their own websites, so you can visit ‘virtually’ before you get here in person. Take down the addresses, get yourself a Reading city map, and you’re on your way. And if you resist the temptation to wear the hat you bought last year showing Reading’s mountaintop Pagoda or some other ‘mark of the tourist,’ you’ll simply fit right in as one of the locals! We’re looking forward to seeing you all over Reading, not at just the main venues! (And I'm kidding, of course, please wear your hats!)
About the Reading city map, one is included in the Reading Eagle program that is free and can be picked up in many locations around the city. To be distributed along with the local paper Sunday, March 6, manager John Ernesto was giving out copies to those of us at the Jazz Base on Thursday evening, so we had a sneak preview. It’s jammed full of all the events, artist bios mentioned above (16 pages of them!), jazzy items you can buy in local shops or at the venues, and will supply you with all the information you need to satisfy your appetite for food, music, and shopping for anything you might want to take home.
The annual tradition of promoting the jazz fest was held once again at Borders on Sunday, February 27, with less than two weeks in the countdown until opening night. The afternoon’s festivities included sale of Berks Jazz Fest merchandise, paving the way for the new shirts, mugs, and other memorabilia that we all like to collect. It also featured a performance by Reading’s own David Cullen, local guitarist.
Cullen is not only well-known in Berks, but he has also performed throughout North America for Classical Guitar Societies, Jazz Festivals, and Performing Arts Series. He was a featured soloist in the 2004 New York Guitar Festival, and has performed with Will Ackerman, Samite, Michael Manning, Victor Wooten, the Jaco Big Band, and with members of the Philadelphia Orchestra. He earned his Bachelor of Music in Classical Guitar Performance from the Hartt School of Music. He has released 9 CDs and written two books entitled JAZZ: CLASSICAL AND BEYOND, and GRATEFUL GUITAR. He teaches at Elizabethtown College, Albright College, and Kutztown University.
Cullen is no doubt best known for his participation, along with other guitarists, on an album dedicated to the music of Henry Mancini that captured the Grammy Award for Best Pop Instrumental Recording. Dave played his contribution to the album, 'The Days of Wine and Roses.' He also played a rendition of Weather Report’s 'Birdland,' and a tune he wrote entitled 'Go Ahead and Play,' reminiscent of his days at the Downtown Tavern in Reading, a place where if the crowd loved your playing, you’d know it, and if they didn’t care for your playing, you’d know that, too. If they liked you, they’d give you the message, ‘Go Ahead and Play!’ The Downtown was a great place to learn the blues, to get your chops, according to Dave. He sure did show his chops on this song!
Dave had a little conversation going with himself up there, and it was quite entertaining. He wondered if there were any Grateful Dead fans in the audience, and he sensed some hesitation, so he quickly added, “Hey, it’s ok if you are, there’s nothing wrong with that.’ Then he showed us the Grateful Dead shirt he designed to cover his guitar, a picture of which landed on a CD cover; he’s dubbed this the Grateful Guitar. Then he tried to figure out which Grateful Dead song to play, and decided on 'Casey Jones,' because it has sort of a ragtime feel to it.
Dave went on to explain that he began playing guitar at age 7 in California. He came from a large family – Mom, Dad and 9 children, and he learned guitar by watching group lessons on television. He had a special book that went with the lessons. Dave played a special number, entitled, 'Blue California,' in honor of his early home.
Cullen’s wife, Jill Haley, a talented oboe player who plays for various symphony orchestras in Reading and the surrounding area, came in near the end of Dave’s performance to play one song with him. Never seeing her set up and place the oboe in her lap, and thinking she did not bring it and did not plan to play, he went into his last number, announced it, and ended the show. Fortunately for us he realized his mistake and quickly got our attention and explained his wife came to play and they were going to play. It was a wonderful number, 'Exploding Colors,' from the CD of the same name featuring both of them. I never realized how magnificent the guitar and oboe sound together -- it was beautiful, peaceful, and after hearing it, I was glad copies of that CD were available for purchase.
Lots of familiar, ‘behind the scenes’ Jazz Fest faces were to be seen at Borders that day, and at Gerald Veasley’s Jazz Base on Thursday evening, including Berks Jazz Fest General Manager John Ernesto,. I was able to ask him about ticket sales. “Ticket sales are good this year,” he explained, then quickly added, “Now that we’re under two weeks and counting, this is the period when a lot of work still needs to be done.”
Connie Leinbach, Executive Director of the Berks Jazz Fest and the Berks Arts Council, mentioned that volunteer coordinators are working hard to get every venue covered as far as seating, merchandise sales, fan surveys and lots of other jobs that are needed. I ran into Al Seifarth, gifted flutist who will be playing during the festival. (look for his name in the schedule). He happens to be a former high school teacher of mine who’s been active on the local music scene ever since I can remember.
At the Jazz Base, I also caught up with Gary Spencer, Production Manager for the Jazz Fest and Mike Anderson,, who handles Marketing and Publicity as well as stage management. Mike has been busy bringing us a weekly radio show featuring various artists leading up to the opening concert on Friday, March 11th. (see photo showing Gary and Mike setting up for a second, awesome performance of the season by the Tim Price and Rachel Z Jazz Encounter at the Jazz Base.)
So Berks is nearly ready for this most special event held every March. And adding to the excitement for me is that three of us from this site, Smooth Jazz Vibes, will be coming together this year for the first time, including originator in 1995 and host of this site, long time jazz aficionado Peter Boehi, who will come all the way from Switzerland, and Jonathan Widran, music journalist extraordinaire, coming in from California. If you see us hanging out at a main venue or at one of the many other events happening around town, do come up and say hello, we’d love to meet you!
In closing, the time has come to say, “Let the music begin!’ In a rapidly shrinking number of days and hours, this city will light up with JAZZ.
I wish you ALL the Happiest of Jazzin’ at Berks,
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo credits: Michael PackardPosted by Beverly J. Packard at March 6, 2005 6:20 AM