There are a few set times each year when we as Savannahians must surely stop and take a collective breath, awestruck at the spectacle afforded us.
One such annual event would of course be our St. Patricks Day celebrations, when our town is converged upon by tens of thousands of revelers. Another would be the Savannah Music Festival, which sees an astonishing variety of world-class musical talent offer up several evenings worth of amazing shows and once-in-a-lifetime summits meetings.
However, an argument could be posited that it is within the confines of the Savannah Jazz festival that the collective heart of this community may beat loudest.
Now in its 24th year, this impressive round-up of international artists has always tilted heavily towards acknowledging and applauding the accomplishments of our hometown heroes.
Thats not surprising, as well-known regional jazz enthusiasts such as Ike Carter, Boo Hornstein, Larry Dane-Kellogg, and the late Jim Alley have always been happy to espouse the unique connection the Lowcountry and Coastal Empire and specifically Savannah proper had in the formative years of this most American of art forms.
It is undeniable that over the years, this festival has had its ups and downs, its successes and its failures. Such is inevitable with large-scale endeavors like this, which require a level of planning, coordination and often blind luck that is very difficult to explain to anyone who has never had the experience of working backstage at such an undertaking.
Yes, its true that in years past, the big name headliners were often bigger names, and the large outdoor crowds were sometimes noticeably larger (usually in direct proportion to the status of the acts), but the organizers have quite candidly noted the significant drop in corporate sponsorship that at one time helped to subsidize that star power.
Yet, in some ways, the lack of a Diane Schuur has resulted in a stronger lineup of slightly lower-tier names, that cost a fraction of the money commanded by those at the highest levels.
We now have a solid assortment of artists available for several days of free public concerts, and these artists run the gamut from new upstarts with the world at their fingertips, to seasoned pros who now serves as mentors and inspirations to those on their way up.
Thats how things have always worked in the jazz and blues realm, and the opportunity to be privy to torches being passed and unexpected connections made between complete strangers in the blink of an eye or the bending of a note is a rare gift that each and every person in town this weekend should do their best to witness.
As the increasingly fragmented music industry becomes more concerned with creating hits and less concerned with preserving heritage and facilitating that intangible magic they were once known for, live music (and in particular live jazz music) becomes all the more important to the cultural well-being of our nation.
There are far too many acts being showcased by the Jazz Fest this year for us to cover in-depth. However, what follows are my recommendations for three of the more unique bookings this time out. All acts will appear in Forsyth Park, or, in case of inclement weather, at Savannah State University.
Doreen Ketchens (Thurs., 9 PM)
As part of Blues Night, this show stealing New Orleans-bred Queen of Jazz will serve to represent the traditional Dixieland strain of jazz, encompassing the blues, vaudevillian tunes and even funeral marches. A onetime street performer, she has come to be called The Female Louis Armstrong, and has toured 10 countries, including Belgium, Germany, Denmark, France and Taiwan.
Cindy Blackman (Fri., 9:30 PM)
When the Coastal Jazz Societys Cynthia Collins told me this would be a great year for fans of jazz drummers, she wasnt joking. Blackman has dazzled Savannah audiences in the past and is back for a repeat engagement with her Quartet. From straight-ahead jazz to funk and rock, Cindy is at the top of her field, and has backed Pharoah Sanders, Cassandra Wilson and Don Pullen, in addition to her longtime gig with rocker Lenny Kravitz. I would liken her to a female version of the great Tony Williams in the her ability to not sacrifice control and nuance for the sake of sheer power.
The CJA All-Stars (Sat., 4 pm)
This supergroup consists of players who have been elected to the Coastal Jazz Hall of Fame. Among those, trombonist Teddy Adams (who has worked with Art Blakey and Abby Lincoln), drummer Ben Riley (who has served with Chet Baker, Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins), and saxman Eddie Pazant (who has gigged with Billie Holiday, Eartha Kitt and James Brown) are of special note.
For a complete schedule of performers and show times, try www.coastaljazz.com or call (912) 356-2399.