When vocalist and festival director Ronnie Wells died of cancer back in 2007, the East Coast Jazz Festival seemed to have died with her. With the help of a cadre of volunteers and supporters, Wells had founded and organized the festival for many years with a focus on education and outreach, as well as a balance of regional and national performers. But after her death the festival was cancelled with little hope for future events without its leader.
Paul Carr, a DC-based jazz saxophonist, who was close to Wells and who performed many times at the festival, said that after Wells died someone asked him if he was going to keep the festival going. He told JT, “I thought ‘that’s crazy.’ It seemed so far-fetched. I didn’t seriously consider it.” But several months later, a local jazz interest group invited him to a meeting about growing the region’s jazz audience. “I went thinking of all sorts of things that could be done with outreach and programs, but it turned out that they just wanted to get the festival back. They were going to have me be the Education Director, but then they said, ‘Paul, why don’t you just run the festival?’ And I was in.”
Now Carr has resurrected the festival, albeit with a new name, as the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival, which will take place February 19 through 21, 2010 at the Hilton Rockville in Rockville, Maryland. The festival was organized under the auspices of the Jazz Academy of Music, an education program created by Carr in 2002. Among the artists scheduled to appear at the festival are Mulgrew Miller, Bobby Watson, Terell Stafford, Lewis Nash and Marc Cary, along with plenty of local and regional talent, as well as school bands from throughout the Mid-Atlantic region. Education and outreach were always a big part of the East Coast Jazz Festival and that emphasis will not change. An active and passionate jazz educator himself, Carr said that, “The festival was really missed by school band people particularly. A lot of band directors had planned their year around the festival. For younger programs, the festival became a sort of stretch target.” The school bands will perform on Saturday afternoon and there will be some clinics and master classes.
Carr said that the vision for the festival hasn’t changed much from that of its original founder. “The festival is very much in Ronnie’s spirit. We’re keeping the basic template for the festival. But we’re adding some new wrinkles too.” Bret Primack, “The Jazz Video Guy,” will be showing jazz films and videos in one room. JT contributor Larry Appelbaum will be doing a few Before & After sessions with musicians on site. And, as before, there will be a Sunday Brunch. Another thing that won’t change will be the balance of national acts with local or regional acts. According to Carr, “The talent is coming from everywhere, but we intend to embrace the real sense of community. I know that the DC area has so many great jazz musicians. They’ll always be a big part of this festival. Hey, I live here. I know.”
He said that one of the reasons that they changed the name of the festival was to establish its own identity. “The festival is not going to be as large as what Ronnie had in its final year. We’re doing what we call a ‘soft entry’ this year.” In the meantime, the response has been well beyond what Carr expected. “I hear from the audience almost daily about how excited they are that the festival is coming back.” Carr laughed when I asked him if he know what he was getting into when he agreed to run this festival. “First, I thought, ‘How tough can it be?’ Lately, I’ve been trying to fool myself about how much work it is. But we do have great people working on this. You know, it’s a lot of work, but it’s going to be a lot of fun.”
For more information about the festival, you can visit their web site.