WHEN the gifts have been exchanged, when the dishes are dry and the candles are burned down to the wick, Savannah musicians, music lovers, and their families have one Christmas night destination.
For nearly 50 years, Coastal Jazz Association has welcomed jazz players—from high school students to Hall of Fame inductees—to perform together at the Christmas Concert and Jam Session.
“This is a meeting place for the holidays, for musicians who come home to visit and for those who move away and come home for Christmas,” says Coastal Jazz’s Teddy Adams. “We have quite a few of my ex-students and young people from Savannah coming back from Boston, New York...these guys are making a comfortable living as professional musicians and they’re returning home for the holidays.”
The concert sees many returning faces and regular attendees, but it’s that element of surprise that makes the event so magical.
“We know some people for sure who are coming, but every year, somebody comes in that we don’t expect,” Adams says. “They come because they just heard about the event, so it’s not only people coming that we expect. It’s always a very outstanding surprise in the way of the musicians who come in and their reputations.”
Savannah Arts Academy alums regularly appear at the event.
“That is the main school in Savannah for music, and they have a jazz program there,” Adams notes. “It’s great to see alumni from that school come in, doing well and playing well. And we at Coastal Jazz work very closely with that school. We work with them because they are the future of music.”
Through the annual concert, the Association raises funds that go toward college scholarships for promising voices in jazz.
“We give them the scholarship, and they also get the opportunity to perform with the Savannah Jazz Orchestra at the annual Duke Ellington concert,” Adams says. “They get the money and get to play—that’s quite a reward.”
This year, the tradition gets a fresh twist with a two-part concert experience. A unique sextet, featuring Adams, Howard Paul, Robert Saunders, Eric Jones, Mitch Hennes, Kirk Lee, Gina Rene, and Calvin Barnes, will play Christmas favorites. After their performance, the stage is open and musicians are welcome to join in the jam.
“Because of the level of musicianship, the only thing we ask if that you are able to play,” Adams says. “We welcome all as long as they are performing musicians.”
As generations gather to play alongside each other year after year, Adams sees a true appreciation of Savannah’s often-forgotten jazz history.
“I don’t know that there’s a Savannah style in sound, but there is a very strong legacy,” he says. “Because of Savannah being a port town, you had to come through it going through the East Coast and Southeast to the Northeast. Musicians would stop here because they could find work.”
“It started the same time as the New Orleans jazz scene, but with a less European vibe and more of an African vibe,” adds Coastal Jazz Association’s Paula Fogarty. “The story is extremely rich with great jazz legends, from King Oliver to Johnny Mercer. Duke Ellington played here a lot.”
“When I was learning to play, there were several venues in Savannah and out on Tybee,” says Adams. “Savannah’s legacy and history is very strong. I think many from Savannah have a respect for Savannah’s contributions to jazz.”
“We’ve got a rich story to tell,” adds Fogarty.
Looking toward 2018, Savannah’s jazz story will be told through an exhibit on Savannah jazz history, a 1500-square foot space that will be installed permanently at the Savannah History Museum in the Savannah Visitor Center.
“We’ll be launching a campaign for that exhibit and will hopefully draw a lot of visitors and educate people on the tremendous legacy of jazz history in Savannah,” says Fogarty.
If you’re leaving town for the holidays and can’t make the Christmas Concert, Fogarty has some gift suggestions that will support their cause.
“A great gift idea is to give the gift of music!” she says. “We are having a membership drive from now until January 1 to have a full one-year membership to Coastal Jazz Association, which gets you ten free concerts a year. If you’re a single, it’s $50 for a single membership—that’s $5 a concert for world-class jazz! I don’t think you can beat that deal.”
A great present for the bookworm and music lover in your life is Adams’ memoir The Up of the Down Beat. Released in October, the book recounts Adams’ life as a musician with plenty of local color thrown in.
As the curtain falls on 2017, the Association is excited to welcome jazz heroes home and stride into 2018 in style with memorable concerts, a grand Jazz Festival return, and much more.
“We are looking forward to bigger and better things in 2018,” Adams confirms. “We’re on a roll.”