Jazz Festivals in Newport, and everywhere

The 58th anniversary of the Newport Jazz Festival starts tonight (Friday, 8/3) in Rhode Island, and thanks to

George Wein orchestrates the Newport Jazz Fest, which gave birth to all the others

producer George Wein, there’s a press bus going that I’ll be on. But you don’t have to go to Newport for the jazz fest experience — small towns as well as large ones throughout America (and beyond) have discovered that jazz fests are good, clean fun, fine for the local economy and for giving a town a good name, too. (Tip: you can watch the Newport Jazz Fest’s Saturday and Sunday shows as broadcast live by a partnership of WGBH and WBGO — how ironic! — which will be archived as audio, reportedly).

Peekskill’s 6th annual Jazz and Blues Fest, for instance, two weekends ago, was a day-trip from Manhattan and an easy pleasure. An hour and a half on Metro North from Grand Central Station, which cost about $50 apiece rt, and my friend and I alit into a low-key town on the Hudson. A mile walk uphill to Peekskill center, where the streets were blocked off for pedestrians only, a stage was set so the sun would sink behind it. Rows of folding chair awaited sitters. The restaurants were all open, with either seating or grills or steam tables out front. Each had booked jazz performancers: I heard singer Alexis Cole with pianist Richard Sussman while lunching. A local flutist sat in nicely on a bossa nova.

Officially that fest’s music didn’t start ’til 4, so we shopped at the used book store (of course) and poked into a couple shops. Then Nation Beat came on. An energetic NYC-based Brazil cum New Orleans ensemble led by

Dancing in the streets in Peekskill

drummer Scott Kettner, it is by no means a purist jazz ensemble, and no one cares. Singer Liliana and the fiddler-clarinetist soloist loosened up the crowd, so little kids and parents were comfortable dancing in front of them, and the foldings chair filled up (though mostly the shaded ones first).

Pianist Marc Cary’s Focus Trio followed — and though he had only a Fender to work with, no grand piano, Cary was inspired by the crowd’s good energy and afternoon’s mellow vibe to play a long, propulsive theme–to-theme jam with his bassist Rashaan Carter and drummer Sameer Gupta, the only person I’ve ever seen deal with his  tabla simultaneously with his traps. Alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, with her very loud r&b party band, took over as dusk fell. We copped some excellent jerk chicken with sides, ate sitting on a street stoop, and headed home exhausted, missing (sadly) headliner Bobby Sanabria, whose Latin jazz band Ascensión with trombonist Chris Washburne, amongst others, was sure to be a blowout finalé.

I estimate the crowd was about 2000. The Peekskill Business Improvement District (BID) is the presenter of the festival, with sponsors including D. Bertoline & Sons (which appears to be an Anheuser-Busch distributor), Verizon, Wells Fargo and Wheelabator Westchester LP, “a waste management company,” with in-kind help from the City of Peekskill, the Hudson Valley Gateway Chamber of Commerce, and the Paramount Center for the Arts, a local presenter based in a restored movie palace.

Just from notifications in my e-mail I know that this weekend is also Chicago South Shore Jazz Festival (featuring Pharoah Sanders and local star singer Dee Alexander; next weekend (Aug 10 – 12) is the Litchfield Jazz Festival; Aug 8 – 12 is the New Haven Jazz Festival, and the third annual Bancroft and Maynooth Jazz and Blues festival in Bancroft, Ontario (thanks to saxist-flutist Jane Bunnett and trumpeter Larry Cramer, producers); Aug 16 through 19 is the Hudson Valley Jazz Festival in Warwick, NY; Aug 18 and 19 there’s a Jazz on 2nd Avenue Festival in Niwot, Colorado, and Poughkeepsie’s “Jazz in the Valley Weekend” and Morristown NJ’s Jazz and Blues Festival.

Also: Chene Park in Detroit has just begun its Wednesday evening series (leading up to the Detroit International Jazz Festival over Labor Day — at which time I’ll be at the Chicago Jazz Festival). The Jazz Journalists Association just presented Jazz Awards, belatedly, to Amiri Baraka (for Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism) at the Lincoln Park Music Festival in Newark, NJ, and to Gretchen Parlato (as Best Female Singer of the Year) at the Caramoor Jazz Festival in Katonah, New York.

And so on. There must be something productive about jazz festivals, or this wouldn’t be happening.


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