02/22/06

East Coast Jazz Festival 2006

The slogan for the 15th annual East Coast Jazz Festival held Feb. 16-20 at the Double Tree Hotel outside Washington, D.C., was “Your Straight-Ahead Jazz Extravaganza,” but the real theme of the five-day event was community. The festival included: tributes to bassist Keter Betts and drummer Mike Smith, two D.C. jazz icons who died in the past year; performances from nearly thirty local youth ensembles; a scholarship contest for emerging jazz artists; and hundreds of musicians plucked directly from the Washington, D.C., jazz scene. Even the festival presenter, The Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, was named to honor Elmore “Fish” Middleton, a popular jazz programmer at a D.C. radio station.

For me too the festival was a literal homecoming of sorts. Not only did I grow up in the area, but my sister was bat mitzvahed 20 years ago in the ballroom that served as one of the festival’s main venues.

That was where the Ron Kearns Quintet kicked off the main portion of the festival on Friday with an emotional set of jazz standards that Kearns dedicated to Betts and Smith. And though there was no Torah reading or chanting, there were plenty of highlights, particularly from Kearns’ sidemen. Trombonist John Jenson and bassist Kent Miller shined on the Irving Gordon and Harry Warren classic “There Will Never Be Another You.” Miller’s lyrical solo in particular proved a fitting ode to Betts. Drummer Greg Holloway displayed some stellar stick-work on Dizzy Gillespie’s “Night In Tunisia,” including a jaw-dropping 12-bar introduction. Kearns, who is also an in-demand producer in D.C., more than equaled his band. The set concluded with “Mike’s Dancin’ on the Train,” a Coltrane-esque song Kearns and Smith co-wrote during their 10-year tenure as band mates. Originally called “Dancin’ on the Train,” Kearns renamed the song after Smith died. It featured Kearns’ most impassioned and melodic saxophone solos of the set.

One exciting aspect of festivals is seeing great musicians perform together for the first time. It can work to create magical moments of tension with emotive improvisation. It can also prove a disaster if the musicians don’t gel. Unfortunately, vocalist Giacomo Gates’ performance with the Eric Byrd Trio fit mostly in the latter category. The set got off to a bad start with Gates spending a large portion of the first three songs complaining about the sound quality to the engineer. Gates and his backing band never seemed to be on the same page. At one point during the Oliver Nelson classic “Stolen Moments,” Gates stopped his drummer mid-song so they could exchange 4-bar solos. Needless to say, it was a momentum killer. The set did pick up toward the end, after Gates and his sidemen began to get a feel for one another. Miles Davis’ “All Blues” and the Gershwins’ “Lady Be Good” featured Gates’ original lyrics and his trademark Johnny Hartman-like warble. But you got the feeling that the performance might have shined earlier in the evening with a rehearsal or two.

One memorable performance at the festival belonged to the inimitable 70-year-old altoist Frank Morgan. Despite walking with a pronounced limp, he sounded as youthful as ever and looked dapper in an all-black outfit complete with beret. Morgan, who has had more lives than a litter of kittens, played Charlie Parker and John Coltrane classics well into the night on Saturday. He squeaked and squealed and elicited more than a few yelps from the eager audience of several hundred people.

The festival’s five days were filled with performances, workshops and jam sessions, many of which were free to the public. Six stages were available and festival management did a great job of organizing events so that there was never a lull in the action. Other performers of note included David “Fathead” Newman, the Don Junker Big Band, the Paul Carr Quartet, the U.S. Army Blues Band and chanteuse Vanessa Rubin.

The main section of the festival concluded on a high note Sunday night with Junior Mance’s Tribute to Keter Betts. A full house was on hand to see Mance, saxophonist Buck Hill and drummer Harold Mann lay down the foundation while bassists Steve Novosel, Tommy Cecil and James King—all phenomenal bassists and friends of Betts—played lead on a number of Betts’ favorite jazz standards, including Jobim’s “Quiet Nights,” “Body and Soul” and “Someone to Watch Over Me.” A painting of a smiling Betts holding his upright stood on the right side of the stage during the performance. Novosel’s playing was particularly masterful, reaching all the right notes as his body jerked with the emotion of the music. After one Novosel solo, Cecil, who is a bass virtuoso in his own right, looked at the audience as if to say, “There’s no way I can top that.”

If there was a major downside to the festival, it was the venue’s impersonal, austere and antiseptic ballrooms and stages. The paisley carpeting and kitschy crystal chandeliers were constant reminders why most hotels are more conducive to real estate conventions than effusive jazz performances.

Kearns joked at the beginning of his set by welcoming the audience to “a land-lover’s jazz cruise.” But that’s exactly what the festival felt like, particularly in the atrium, where bands played to throngs of people hanging over railings on each of the seven floors that spiraled up around the stage like decks on the Love Boat. Hallways between performance spaces were lined with a buffet of vendors hocking everything from custom-made jewelry to Bob Marley T-shirts.

Still, perhaps the generic setting was fitting for a “straight-ahead jazz extravaganza“ as the performances—while excellent in their own right—rarely strayed into new territory. When Kearns’ pianist Larry Brown started sprinkling other players’ solos with accent chords, he was greeted by stares that said, “You must be kidding,” rather than “Right on!”

It was nice to see equal amounts of instrumental and vocal jazz, something rare on the festival circuit. This was a testament to festival organizer Ronnie Wells, who is an accomplished vocalist and former jazz studies professor at the University of Maryland. In fact, many of the vocal performers were Wells’ former students.

In the end, however, it was the quality of the performers and not necessarily the performance space that will be remembered and that proved a fitting tribute to the Washington, D.C., jazz community and, particularly, two local jazz giants who took an art form and made it their own.

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