On September 16th, Gerald Veasley's Jazz Base opened in Reading, Pennsylvania, home of the Berks Jazz Fest, amid a scene perhaps reminiscent of bygone days when jazz clubs were small, intimate spaces. Against the backdrop of an artist�s rendition of the city skyline, an inviting atmosphere beckoned, complete with white cloths adorning round tables for two, shimmering candles, and larger seating areas sprinkled throughout the two level club. From any vantage point, friends could gather for quiet conversation and serious appreciation of the music. Excitement grew as we came closer to the moment Veasley would be in front of us, welcoming us to the first night of his artistic venture, Gerald Veasley�s JAZZ BASE!
Stepping up to the microphone for the very first time on this very first night, Veasley�s face spoke volumes, his banner and logo for the club looming large behind him. Yes, there was understandable pride and happiness and excitement in this moment, yet it was Veasley as usual, simply glad to see all of us! In the audience were friends and family members that he mentioned by name. His daughter Taylor (TJ) and nephews Robert and Dmitri were there to share in the celebration and their faces were beaming. (Be sure to see them in pictures below.)
As the chatter at each table quieted and the silver ball above us continued to slowly spin, Veasley encouraged us to sit back and relax, to open our hearts and our minds, to go on a journey with the band. �However,� he said, �You�ll have to leave your luggage behind.� He wanted us to forget about the stressful day we may have had, our problems, our jobs. �So clap your hands,� he added. And we did.
The music began and soon Veasley�s head was bobbing up and down, back and forth -- his signature sign of bliss with the bass, I call it, having seen this phenomenon many times before. Wearing his characteristically debonair beret (only later did I discover his shoes exactly matched that striped beret he wore) and swinging the end of the bass guitar up and down to the beat in an exaggerated motion, his winning smile and continued clapping made it easy to want to hop on board for the start of this journey.
The music was everything we hoped for. With a nod of his head, Veasley featured a few of his players during the first song, moving from the trumpet player, Rob Diener, to keyboard player Will Brock, to trombone player Bill Miller, then to the soprano sax player, Paul Cox.
By this time, the band had launched into �Do You Remember,�from Veasley�s Velvet CD. Peter Kuzma took it away on keyboard, but after a time there was the unmistakable presence of Veasley�s bass creeping back in. The drummer made his presence known, and we were off to faraway places. And we found it easy to leave the luggage behind.
The stage was filled with talented musicians throughout the night, along with familiar, well loved tunes, plenty of jamming, and a surprise guest in the form of accomplished guitarist Ed Hamilton. Band member Will Brock, keyboardist, virtually exercised his way through the songs, jumping up and down to the beat. He was enthusiasm personified throughout the evening. Eric Green, a superbly talented drummer, at one point lost a stick and Veasley, while happy to oblige by picking it up, held it only teasingly close. Veasley always puts fun first, to the crowd�s delight. But it made no real difference to this drummer, amazingly, as he continued his intricate drumwork almost as if he originally planned to play with just one stick! It didn�t matter at all! And he played with so much gusto when he got it back, what a dynamite song that was!
The keyboardist, who had just gotten back from California, Peter Kuzma, was awesome and it was obvious Veasley so much appreciated his being here. Percussionist Pablo Baptiste often simply closed his eyes and went to a place where he could accentuate, punctuate and exacerbate with every sound available in his repertoire. He was great! Paul Cox continued to play a key role in many songs and he was quite a solid and masterful saxophonist.
Veasley also had fun with the Berks Jazz Fest Horns, whom he seems to have affectionately renamed the Shiny Horns, consisting of Mike Anderson on saxophone, Rob Diener on trumpet, and Bill Miller on trombone. No doubt Veasley has been one of the first well-known artists playing Berks who has decided to feature local talent right up there with him on stage.
Will Brock rocked the house just before the break with a great song, called, �The House Called Home.� We loved watching him as he sang his story with the recurring theme �I�m so glad I�m back home.� At one point he was no longer playing the keyboard, but his fingers were still moving up in the air in front of him as if he were playing. He had a bit of calisthenics going on there with the fingers in the air -- they just had to express the frenzy he was in over being back home!
After a particularly long stretch of some great jamming on this same song, �Home,� players were in another world, singing along with the solo. Veasley had so beautifully set the stage this evening, and when the song came to an end, even he was moved to declare �Lord have MERCY�.and it ain�t over yet!!�
Gerald Veasley and his expressiveness surely will go down in history. From the expressions while he�s playing to the one-liners he shares with us, he is truly entertaining! He really does �go somewhere else� when he�s playing; his expressions mirror both the effort involved in playing it �just right� and the thoughts which must come and go when he�s playing � some of these must be pretty comical to him because he�s not just smiling, he�s actually laughing. And his laughter has always been so infectious. Everyone who�s ever watched him play will tell you.
Intermission brought more laughs as Veasley promised us, �We�re all coming back�it�s MY CLUB!�
During the second set, friend and fellow Philadelphian Ed Hamilton walked onto the stage and the crowd eagerly entered into his version of �Fly Like An Eagle,� a recent hit which had a lot of airplay. What a fluid guitarist whose playing makes it looks so very effortless. And Hamilton had another treat in store for us: he told the story of his treasured association with the late George Howard, and moved right into �Gray Day� from his Planet Jazz CD, which he dedicated to George. �Gray Day� stretched out for a long time, thankfully, as this was a real highlight of the show, and by the time it ended, the crowd had relaxed into a very mellow state.
Hamilton was a great choice for this opening night. Another passionate player with facial expressions to match; on his face you can watch the agony and the ecstasy of both the intense effort it takes to play well and the beautiful result of that effort. At times he�s referred to himself as a �hermit,� so we are grateful if he came out of his �cave� to be part of this night, which was made even more special by his presence.
This show was high energy and full of surprises. But at one point, Veasley slowed things down a bit with a song dedicated to his wife, Roxanne. Looking and playing rather soulful, and every once in a while searching the crowd for her, he admitted that somehow he had forgotten to save her a seat. And so he wasn�t sure where to look for her, but soon he found her. I have learned when an artist not only plays but also composes his own music, there is great opportunity to reach into the depths of his soul and share a portion of that with us. How moving it is when someone like Veasley, then, after composing a song with Roxanne in mind, finds her and gazes at her while playing that song. A song of meaning that only the two of them can fathom. One of my favorite moments during an artist�s performance is when he shares something of the special person(s) in his life who has motivated and inspired his work.
The most poignant moment of the night, however, had to be when Veasley played �Sarah�s Song,� also from the Velvet CD. He told us about a daughter who, as he explained, almost made it here, but not quite. The song, so beautiful, seemed to portray the love of a parent for the essence of his child. To follow the music was both sweet and intense, perhaps especially for those of us who are parents. The end of the song was quite uplifting, making me think the audience could feel Sarah, triumphant, dancing in the heavens, almost as if to say, �I�m just fine and I�ll see you later, Mommy and Daddy.� Extremely moving for me, and yet another example of the way Gerald Veasley shares his heart and soul with us through his music and his friendship.
Having the Jazz Base right here in Reading allows us to get to know Gerald Veasley better, and what we've learned is that he makes everything fun! Everything about this night speaks of his dedication to music and his desire to use it to bring happiness into the lives of others.
So thanks for opening this artistic base, Gerald! Thanks for delivering on your promise of a journey, for opening your heart with music and words and facial expressions, for sharing your love and stage with specially talented band members, and finally, for your genuine joy in being with us, the fans.
Footnote: Opening Night of Gerald Veasley�s Jazz Base has been followed by consecutive Thursday nights of jazz music by local and regional artists. Veasley himself has visited now and then and, in fact, put in a guest appearance with local talent Chris Heslop and his Nasty Nine band two weeks ago. A real team player, Veasley can either be in charge or he can follow, it seems to make no difference to him, as long as he is playing and making people happy.
If you haven�t yet made it to the Jazz Base, this would be a choice week to venture out and see what you�re missing. This week will be a live CD recording session! So come on out and have some fun, Gerald Veasley style!!
Beverly J. Packard
Jazz Circle Member of the Berks Arts Council
Photo Credits: Michael C. Packard