The NYC Charlie Parker Jazz Festival began 20 years ago and returns starting Aug. 17 with a week of activities leading up to free concerts Aug. 24 – 36 in Marcus Garvey Park, Harlem, and Tompkins Square Park, East Village. I will present headliner Roy Haynes with his “Drummer of the Year” Award from the Jazz Journalists Association on Aug. 25, and am hosting a Sidetours group to enjoy the fest experience from an insider’s point of view (mine). Haynes is one of the handful of surviving jazz veterans who made music with Bird in his heyday, and his performance with his Fountain of Youth Band can be reliably predicted to take flight — the drummer is still very much at the top of his game, incredibly at age 87.
A couple of spots in this small group are still open, so if you’re interested, sign up soon, as I’m pretty excited to be hanging out with a curious coterie of cool folks via Sidetours, looking forward to meeting new people and talking music with them, as I do with my friends and also students in my NYU classes.
The Charlie Parker fest was initiated by a small neighborhood committee comprising photographer Judy Sneed, who lived in the East Village apartment where the great jazz alto saxophonist resided with his family when he died in 1955, and Sam Turvey, a local activist, among others. Over the past two decades the fest has presented many musical thrills. I remember alto saxophonist Charles McPherson, tenorist Archie Shepp, Butch Morris leading a conduction of many flutists backing altoist Arthur Blythe, pianist Vijay Iyer, singer Etta Jones’ singing the Billie Holiday songbook and altoist Marty Ehrlich leading the Julius Hemphill Sextet among highlights of the beautiful late summer days in the parks. Last year, when the fest was rained out, I created an online virtual video fest of the bands that had been booked.
After funding problems led the fest founders to suspend activities about eight years ago, NYC’s City Parks department took over the responsibilities, and the people who bring us Central Park Summerstage have done a bang-up job honoring the inimitably bluesy and fleet Bird, extending festivities to a second site on a second day (and now a whole week), besides maintaining the high level of jazz talent. This year, besides Haynes the fest at Garvey presents singer Rene Marie’s “Experiment in Truth” (a very candid program, based on material she recorded in 2007 and has just issued as a DIY production), bassist Derrick Hodge (currently touring with pianist Robert Glasper, he has a Blue Note record release upcoming) and Erimaj (Jamire Williams) who promises a genre mashup, plus two poets. The night before (Aug. 24), producer-composer-arranger-strings specialist Miguel Atwood Ferguson presents his ambitious “Bird with Strings” program by at Garvey, and on Sunday at Tompkins Square Park the singers Ernestine Anderson and Gregory Porter perform with their respective bands, keyboardist Andy Milne’s Dapp Theory, and emerging pianist Sullivan Fortner rounding out the bill.
If you’ve heard of Bird but haven’t heard him, take a look at this 1952 video of the Immortal with trumpeter
Dizzy Gillespie, his most worthy collaborator, pianist Dick Hyman, bassist Sandy Block and left-handed drummer Charlie Smith playing “Hot House.” Virtuosic, gutsy, succinct, brilliant, Charlie Parker was an innovator poised historically between Louis Armstrong and Jimi Hendrix. We’re always listening for someone new of that order.