Over the years, this annual event has seen its fair share of changes in both attendance and the fame of its headliners. However, one thing has remained a constant: community participation.
With the vast majority of these free shows taking place in beautiful Forsyth Park (or indoors at Savannah State Universitys Tiger Arena if the weather turns), the JazzFest is the only time many locals get to enjoy live jazz and blues. Thats a shame, as in many respects both art forms represent all that is good and inspirational about America.
While many readers may be unfamiliar with some of the folks on the bill this time around, trust me when I say that its a very nice cross-section of artists. In fact, when taken as a whole, our 2005 festival holds its own quite nicely against similar city-sponsored events held in larger metropolitan areas (i.e., Jacksonville).
Prevailing wisdom around town says that most folks who come out for the JazzFest would do so regardless of whos actually onstage, but for those with limited free time who are looking for a bit of direction, heres the lowdown:
Wednesday night at 8 pm, Ragtime pianist David Thomas Roberts holds court on the veranda at Suzabelles on the corner of East Broad and Broughton.
Thursday night, the party moves to Forsyth Park. That evening is dedicated to the blues, and features a 7 pm opening set by local favorite Eric Culberson and Band. Erics an internationally-known Chicago-style electric guitarist wholl soon release his third CD.
Hell be followed at 8 pm by Corey Harris, a sensational singing guitar player (whos cut LPs for both Alligator and Rounder). Hes as comfortable with authentic, Lightnin Hopkins and Son House-style acoustic country blues as he is New Orleans-influenced romps. Fans of Woody Guthrie, Wilco, and/or Billy Bragg may know him for his contribution to the infamous Mermaid Avenue LP sessions.
Finishing up the night at 9 pm is the legendary James Blood Ulmer, one of the most underrated and intense electric guitarists youll find. He first came to prominence playing Ornette Coleman-inspired Harmolodic free jazz, but hes now into deeply personal (and angular) blues that betray a complex understanding of both his instrument and the musics African origins. Plus, hes the only cat on this bill whos ever gigged with Captain Beefheart.
Friday night at 7 pm, Savannah Arts Academys award-winning Skylite Jazz Band backs up the noted Florida-based trumpeter J.B. Scott, followed by the U.S. Air Force Reserve Band at 8 pm.
Things really kick into high gear at 9 pm, though, when the one and only Roy Ayers takes the stage. One of the most famous (and popular) vibraphonists and composers ever, at 70 he continues to rack up dance music and fusion hits across the globe beyond his ongoing legacy of amazing collaborations with Herbie Mann (including the ridiculously bad-ass Memphis Underground LP) and his own chart-topping fusion combo the Roy Ayers Ubiquity.
Saturday, theres an afternoon show at 2 pm by the University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble, followed by the U.S. Army Ground Forces Band. At 4 pm, The J.B. Scott/Lisa Kelly Quintet perform. The last time this formidable Floridian ensemble of musical heavyweights hit Savannah was last New Years Eve when an expanded version of their group dazzled attendees at American Legion Post #135s ball.
Eric Person (repeatedly named a Top 10 soprano sax player in Downbeats Readers Poll) and his group Meta Four play tunes from their brand-new album at 5 pm, followed by Sabor Brasil a Latin jazz group offering sambas, cool bossa novas and Brazilian rhythms featuring percussionist and singer Susan Pereira (whos worked with Flora Purim).
Finishing out the night is a triple bill that has to be seen to be believed: keyboardist (and Black Jazz movement pioneer) Doug Carns Quartet at 7 pm; native Savannah drummer extraordinaire Ben Riley (whos worked with everyone from Sonny Rollins to Stan Getz, but is most famous for his 4-year stint with Thelonious Monk) at 8 pm; and an exceedingly rare appearance by The Genius of Vocalese Jon Hendricks (of Lambert, Hendricks & Ross fame).
One of the true innovators of jazz singing, many feel Hendricks perfected Eddie Jeffersons idea of transposing sung lyrics onto the melodies found in horn, guitar and keyboard solos (an approach later used by The Manhattan Transfer and Bobby McFerrin, among others). His set with the Savannah Jazz Orchestra should not be missed.
Additionally, there are after-festival Jam Sessions taking place at JJ Cagneys (Thursday) and Suzabelles (Friday and Saturday), and a Sunday afternoon kids show in the park with the Coastal Jazz Society Allstars, The Skylite Band and yes even Ronald McDonald (no word yet on what his particular axe is).