After change of venue, organizers tout ‘safe festival’ format for second year
Ask any self-described “hepcat” and they may tell you, “Jazz is love. Jazz is life. Jazz lets you lose yourself in the music.”
The return of an old Savannah favorite has artists eager to tune their guitar, stretch their fingers over the ivories, and get trumpets and saxophones tuned to the ready. Live music is back.
For 40 years, the Savannah Jazz Festival has showcased some of the best jazz musicians around to help Jazz thrive here in the Hostess City. This lively—and free—celebration offers a musical tapestry of unique stories, veteran artists, and the next generation of Jazz influencers paying it forward from their mentors.
Organizers say in response to the City of Savannah’s immediate moratorium on large out-door events to mitigate the spread of COVID, the Savannah Jazz Festival is proud to comply by hosting the second consecutive “safe Savannah Jazz Festival.”
The alternative venue at Savannah Station is designed to meet the dual goals of presenting world-class jazz and blues free of charge to the City of Savannah while adhering to the guidelines of promoting the health and safety of musicians, attendees, sponsors, and suppliers.
This year’s festival opens Friday, Sept. 23, and runs until the last performance of the evening on Sunday, Sept. 26.
For a full schedule of events, visit savannahjazz.org
Here is a closer look at some of the headlining musicians for the 2021 Savannah Jazz Festival:
ROBERT LEE COLEMAN | FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 24
Robert Lee Coleman, 76, is a pioneer in two genres of American music: funk and soul, which are, most often, rooted in African American gospel learned at an early age in the church.
“My step-dad played the guitar and my momma was the preacher,” Coleman tells of his childhood in Macon. “I would listen to him play and I just taught myself.” He laughs remembering a time he was playing with his gospel group. “My gigs would be where my mother was preaching. I was playing once and she jumped straight up like she was moved by the holy spirit and shouted, ‘Boy, play that thing!’”
“I wasn’t much for attention,” he says quietly. “Mostly, I would sit by myself strumming some chords, and the next thing I knew, I’d draw a crowd. Just me and my guitar.”
Coleman is looking forward to an attentive and enthusiastic crowd when he performs at the Savannah Jazz Festival. One of the greatest things, Coleman feels, is the connection with the audience. In fact, it was how he got one of his first major jobs.
“A lot of those big-name musicians would come through Macon all the time. Percy (Sledge) came to see our band in 1964 and loved how we all played so much that we went on the road with him because he just made a connection with us and our music,” Coleman says. Coleman would become a fixture in Percy Sledge’s concerts, traveling the world with him for six years, even playing on the recording of the classic hit, When a Man Loves a Woman.
Following his time with Sledge, Coleman joined James Brown’s band, working on three albums of his. Coleman continues to have a thriving musical scheduling, saying, “I plan on doing this until the good Lord calls me home.”
With the Savannah Jazz Festival the next for him to share his playlist, Coleman wants folks to come out and enjoy the music and “feel it.”
“Being completely self-taught, I’m just me. I like doing things my way. I try to play with feeling and I want to reach out and touch people’s hearts and souls with what I share.”
“This music makes you happy. It just does. You can relax into it.”
Coleman is pleased to be back in Savannah and playing for a live crowd. “Music has to be played. You can’t just put it in your pocket,” he says. Then, he adds, “The greatest thing is seeing the audience’s faces and know they’re feeling it, too. I can’t wait to get there.”
GRANT GREEN, JR. | SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26
Savannah Jazz Festival first-timer, Grant Green, Jr., son of legendary guitar artist Grant Green (dec. 1979), studied his musical craft from an early age, mimicking his father, as well as the many jazz greats from his neighborhood who often visited the Green home for unplanned jam sessions.
“I’ve been very lucky,” Green, Jr., says. “I have always been attracted to a lot of different music, mostly the melodic stuff and how it all blended together to influence me.” Green also says his dad was his best “unofficial” teacher.
“He (Green, Sr.) didn’t want to encourage me toward a music career, so he never taught me how to play. I would sit and watch him and mimic his play. As time went on, he realized how serious I was about music and knew it was in my blood.”
Green states he was heavily influenced by his Detroit neighborhood and his father’s friends, such as The Four Tops, the Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Gladys Knight, to name a few.
Green recollects one of his best memories from the neighborhood. “Stevie (Wonder) was having a big party at his house over from ours. I remember it because it was the first time I’d ever seen a champagne fountain.”
“Stevie had just come off a tour and was so happy to see everyone. He bear-hugged me and the next thing I knew, he was wrestling with me, down to the floor. Stevie was a bit older than me and really strong. People are yelling, ‘Don’t hurt Steve!’ and I’m begging, ‘Don’t hurt me!”
It was all good fun then, Green says, stressing there was no way to avoid being influenced by so many amazing musicians all in the same area.
He has toured extensively for most of his life, including being part of the Godfathers of Groove (also known as the Masters of Groove.) Green is excited to share pieces from his new, original album entitled Soul Science, recorded with his Atlanta-based band as a tribute to Burt Bacharach.
“People should really enjoy this interpretation of Bacharach. We’ll be doing a lot of it.” This is meant as a tribute to his father who once performed with Bacharach.
“I’m excited to be in front of an audience again,” he says of his first official outing since the pandemic began. “Energy flows both ways from the artist to the audience. We feed off each other. When you see they’re into it—clapping their hands, swaying, singing—it wraps us all together in the soothing universal language of music.”
“Songs take you places,” he states. “It’s time travel of sorts. The music has the power to sweep you away.”
Green invites folks to “come on out, be yourself, and become one with the music.”
KENNY BANKS, JR. | SUNDAY, SEPTEMBER 26
As with so many other musical artists, Kenny Banks, Jr., 33, developed a love of music that started at home.
“I was raised by two musicians. My father, a jazz pianist, taught me all of the fundamentals of music theory, jazz composition, and such. This was after I literally used everything in the house there was to play on and with – pots, pans, and my favorite, chopsticks,” Banks recalls.
He started on the drums, but he switched to piano only when he was only ten years old, playing for church with his mother when he was 11. His parent put him into summer music school programs to help him develop his talent, but Banks remembers one of them had “pretty girls…and I knew girls loved a guy who could play music.”
Kenny traveled with the Columbus Youth Jazz Orchestra touring in South America and parts of Italy. “It was after that I really started working for my passion. I got my first adult tour and realized what a wonderful big world we live in.”
This will be Banks’s first Savannah Jazz Festival. “It’s an honor to be there,” he says. “I love Savannah and everything about it…who doesn’t? I can’t wait to play my music.”
Banks says he will share a different mix of genres. “There are Negro spirituals, a few standard hymns, and my own twist to all of it,” he says. “We’ll be doing some of my original pieces, as well. It’s one of my first gigs in a while, so it will be nice to wet my feet here, and hopefully, the audience will relate.”
“If something emotional happens, I want them to let it. I like to push at the tradition, but I love all the nuances of jazz.” Banks jokes about the audience reaction he seeks. “I want the listener to be affected…to cringe in a good way…the opposite of cringe…an emotional jolt… you know, it’s easy, comfortable, and enjoyable.”
Festival attendees are sure to be entertained no matter by the varied musical offerings. Banks invites concert-goers to “Come with a good vibe. Relax and focus on the music, especially the compositions and rhythms. We’re here playing for you and couldn’t be happier.”