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Jazz Portion of Savannah Music Festival Kicks Off

Savannah Music Festival to feature performances by Marcus Roberts, Dick Hyman, Henry Butler, Ken Peplowski and Gerald Clayton Trio

Bill Frisell

On Thursday, March 18, the Savannah Music Festival kicked off its packed schedule of performances across the wide spectrum of American music. However, the jazz segment of the festival is beginning now with performances by Marcus Roberts, Dick Hyman, Henry Butler, Bill Frisell and other artists.

JT recently spoke with festival executive director (and artistic director) Rob Gibson about the festival. Or more accurately, he spoke with us. It took only one question to get Gibson rolling for an eloquent monologue on the merits of presenting jazz in Savannah, the state of American culture and all points in between. His energy and enthusiasm were unflagging. Maybe it was the endorphins kicking in on the eve of what must be a very crazy two weeks.

Gibson has been in charge of the festival since 2002 and unlike many festival directors who take over an established program, he’s not afraid to talk about how he’s changed it. “I don’t say that it’s better, but I do say that it’s different. When I started, it was the Savannah Onstage Festival, which I thought made it sound like a theater company. We need to be as direct as we can. We had a full-time staff of four; now there’s 11. Our budget was about $600,000; now it’s $3 million. It was held over 10 days; now it takes place over 17.”

Perhaps the biggest change in the festival was a shift away from exclusively chamber music and classical music to include much more American roots music. The classical music is still there (this year’s festival included Yefim Bronfman and Lang Lang, but you’ll also find zydeco, bluegrass, folk, blues, rock and, yes, jazz. Gibson is comfortable with that diversity. “When I was in college I was the program director of the college radio station. And it dawned on me recently that I’m doing the same thing – programming reggae, bluegrass, jazz, classical, rock… I’m now 51 years old and I haven’t changed!”

Gibson’s resume includes an auspicious stint as the director of the nascent jazz program created at the Lincoln Center, working closely with Wynton Marsalis. Before that post, he had run the Atlanta Jazz Festival, so his jazz bona fides are for real. “When I went to New York City, jazz was really my focus. I believe that jazz is the real fine art form in America. But it is not the only American musical art form. Personally, I love all different kinds of music.”

Gibson explains that he keeps up with all the different genres by traveling to other festivals, here and in Europe. “I’m a regular at Festival Louisiane every year. My wife loves dancing to zydeco music. And I go to the classical festivals overseas. I do my best to keep up with all the genres.”

The city of Savannah provides Gibson and the festival with an interesting backdrop for a major music event. “The city was part of the 13th colony and was designed by Oglethorpe and because Sherman gave the city a ‘pass’ during the Civil War [presenting the city as a Christmas present to Lincoln], that old town aspect is still intact. The city is not large – just 130,000 in the city and about 300,000 in the entire metro region. People come from all over to see the music here.”

Gibson sees the audience as diverse as the music. “On the same night, you can see a classical concert, or see Wilco or [bluegrass band] Cherryholmes.” Or jazz, of course. Savannah has a jazz past as well that Gibson is well aware of. “Lucky Thompson, Trummy Young, Ben Tucker [who will be saluted at this year’s fest] all came from here. The jazz we present here is based on my own personal taste. But I try hard to create special events. You can see the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra anywhere, but here you’ll see them present the piece by Ted Nash with the film of the painters that inspired that work. We spend the extra money for special events.”

One special bit of this year’s jazz programming that Gibson is proud of is the “Piano Showdown” featuring Dick Hyman, Marcus Roberts, Gerald Clayton and Henry Butler. Butler will also lead a New Orleans blues party the next day, so joints are sure to be jumping. Dick Hyman will also do a Fats Waller concert.

Roberts is a virtual artist-in-residence or more accurately, teacher-in-residence, thanks to the Swing Central High School Jazz Band Competition. Gibson explains that he had created with Wynton the Essentially Ellington competition back in the 90s in order to bring more high school bands to the music.

He tweaked that Essentially Ellington model for Swing Central in which school bands get three charts to work on and 12 school bands are brought to the festival. The faculty working with the students on-site includes artists like Roberts, Wycliffe Gordon and Marcus Printup. “The competition is not to find out who’s best,” Gibson explains. “It’s the reason for them coming and experiencing the music.” And included in that experience is the opportunity for the three top bands to open for major jazz headliners during the festival. And the festival also buses in kids from neighboring schools to selected events over the 17 days.

The educational focus is no dalliance for Gibson, who sees his role and the role of the festival as more than just providing entertainment. “So much of what we do is about education,” says Gibson. “I grew up in an era when your average student could remember poets, artists and musicians. But the mass media has changed American culture so much so that the emphasis is on sports and entertainment, along with money and fame. We’re relinquished that imprimatur to the marketplace. The only social force that can counterbalance that trend is our educational system. We have to start with arts education. And yet the arts is being eliminated from school curriculums. Arts and music are irreplaceable in the way we view the world. It delights us, it instructs us, it counsels us.”

Gibson is really wound up at this point talking about how a festival can make a difference in a city, in a kid or in a culture. “I feel like it’s a crusade!” But even a crusader has to take in some music. I asked Gibson what show he was most looking forward and although he seemed a little reluctant to play favorites, he confessed that the double bill of the Bill Frisell Trio and Malian string players Bassekou Kouyate & Ngoni Ba is the most intriguing to him. “I can see them getting together and wailing.” That would be something to see especially for someone with Gibson’s decidedly catholic tastes.

For more information, including a complete schedule, for the Savannah Music Festival, go to their web site or call 912-525-5050.

Originally Published