All that jazz

Birthed as a humble attempt to highlight a genre unfairly downplayed in the region, JAZZbrevard — now a year into its second decade — has managed to turn the region’s reputation upside down by hosting premier jazz artists. Even the festival’s promoters still seem a bit dazed by its success.

Artistic Director Gene Berger recalls fondly, “The festival started in Brevard simply with people who were fans of swing and jazz, [like] Frank Kirkman, and was dedicated to Don Trapp, whose daughter Leigh is now [the chair of JAZZbrevard].”

In an otherwise musically-rich town, jazz — though respected — was routinely marginalized in local festivals.

“Jazz … was always [just] chunked in there,” Berger notes. “People were missing so much.”

Not any more — at least during one rich weekend in August. Veteran maestros Ellis Marsalis and Ramsey Lewis will headline this year’s JAZZbrevard, and luminaries like Grammy-winning trumpeter Nicholas Payton and fusion/funk/jazz guitarist Charlie Hunter are sprinkled in for good measure.

As proud as Berger is of the festival’s roster of performers, he seems even more amazed by the startling array of fans who come out every year to enrich their ears.

“We have all kinds of audiences,” he says proudly. “[It] cuts across a lot of stereotypes. There are older, retired music fans that have been with JAZZbrevard for years, and jazz aficionados … [but] we’re trying to bring in a youthful crowd,” so that jazz isn’t “something they have to discover when they’re 43.” To that end, promoters have included relative youngsters like Charley Hunter (whose cover of Bob Marley’s Natty Dread did much to cement his popularity with the under-30 set), plus acts like Asheville’s favorite Latin band, Con Clave — guaranteed to incite a dance riot — all featured on a more informal second stage (called the Rhythm Barn). They’ve also added a workshop area — the Pecknel Music Pavilion — where Marsalis, Payton and New Orleans sax man Donald Harrison will conduct jazz clinics. Here, too, the Howard Hanger Jazz Fantasy will present a children’s show, and Asheville’s Triad will wow fans with superb jazz guitar.

Could JAZZbrevard ever hope to keep company with the revered likes of, say, the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, or the Newport Jazz Festival? The musical quality is there, insists Berger, but he doesn’t mind if the western North Carolina version continues to maintain a low profile.

“I’m not worried about chasing the fame,” Berger reports. “Although it’s still very serious, JAZZbrevard is informal. It has magic, excitement and artistry in a beautiful place — not a stage surrounded by asphalt [as at many festivals], but by 100-year-old trees, grass and mountains.”

Berger does admit to one ongoing problem at the festival, which has gotten worse this year, with the addition of the extra stages: which enticing event to take in at a given moment, among a number of choices.

Although New Orleans groove patriarch Ellis Marsalis’ sons — Branford, Wynton and Delfeayo — have become household names in their own right, the elder Marsalis is still considered the Crescent City’s premier modern-jazz pianist. And his influence extends far beyond the bayou: Such current jazz scenesters as Harry Connick Jr. and Terence Blanchard — as well as fellow JAZZbrevard performers Nicholas Payton and Donald Harrison — are all former students of Marsalis. Whistle Stop (Sony, 1998), Marsalis’ latest CD, showcases jazz standards (and not-so-standards) that were written during the ’60s — a fitting retrospective for a man who’s tutored an entire generation of jazz notables.

Like Marsalis, Chicago piano great Ramsey Lewis, offers a rootsy effort on his latest release. Dance of the Soul (GRP, 1998) includes strains of American pop, ’70s soul, and strong tinges of South American, Central American, Cuban and Caribbean music. But the overall effect is more spare than what one hears on his 65 previous recordings.

“I wanted to steer towards a clean sound, without layers of synthesizers, and in that context, let my musical personality run rampant,” noted the multi-Grammy winner in a phone interview.

Lewis has also expanded his musical personality even further, to honor the generations of audiences who have loved his music.

“Artistic satisfaction is a process of two parts,” he explains. “Part one is developing or working with a sound, shaping an idea until there’s a smile on your face. That’s half. The next half is sharing it. All creative arts must be shared. A lot of people will say, ‘I don’t care what people think.’ I think that [attitude] is OK at the inception of an idea, but once it’s developed, most of us want to [give] it to others.”

Lewis has mixed feelings about the life of jazz in the ’90s. Though his own fan base is a decades-solid entity (“I’m fortunate, in that I’ve been around for so long, I’ve developed a following; people have told their children, and then those children grew up and told their children,” he muses), Lewis fears for the future of quality music of all kinds.

“Ours is the only country in the world where the arts have problems staying afloat,” he laments. He blames general apathy and a lack of government funding for the current de-emphasis on the arts in public schools.

“The music getting air play is not conducive to the ongoing development of great music,” he insists. But Lewis — who attempts to remedy that situation with his own weekly syndicated radio program, “Legends of Jazz” — is far from losing hope.

“Because this era has more people, it has the greatest potential,” he points out, adding, “The music and artists are there.”

And, happily for local listeners, a stellar sampling of those artists will be here this weekend.

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