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This article by Richard J. Skelly was prepared for the June 9, 2004 issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Jazzing up NJ’s JazzFest 2004

This August marks a century since William "Count" Basie was born in Red Bank. Originally a piano player, Basie went on to international prominence as a band leader, touring the world with various big bands and small groups. To mark the centennial of his birth, the Jersey Jazz Society is celebrating his life and music, as well as the music of pianist Fats Waller and saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, both of whom would also be 100 years old this year, at its JazzFest 2004 on Saturday and Sunday, June 12 and 13.

Like Benny Goodman and Lionel Hampton, legendary talent scout and record producer John Hammond was Basie’s good friend for many years. Hammond pushed for "mixed" or integrated jazz groups in the late-1930s and early-1940s, long before it was fashionable. Goodman married Hammond’s sister, and Hammond pressured him, beginning in 1939, to perform with African-American musicians like pianist Teddy Wilson. Eventually, Goodman saw that he could continue to have a career after performing and recording with black musicians, and the change brought about a new wave of integration in jazz and popular music throughout the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s.

Change is inevitable, and in the case of integration – both racial and stylistic – in the jazz world, it is undeniably a good thing. While those changes altered the face of American music, a less radical, but also benefical, change is going on at the Jersey Jazz Society. Once known as an organization that promoted traditional jazz from the ’20s to the ’40s, it has seen a sea change in its philosophy. Faced with an aging membership, leaders of the non-profit society realized that in order to continue to prosper, it would need to bring, younger members into the club.

Since the New Jersey Jazz Society’s annual June festival moved to Fairleigh Dickinson University campus seven years ago, the organization has been much more diverse in the types of jazz it presents. Last year trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, one of the young lions of traditional jazz, performed, as did the young saxophonist Harry Allen. While this year’s festival lineup includes longtime Jazz Society favorites like Kenny Davern and Bucky Pizzarelli, it also includes veteran saxophonist Lew Tabackin and pianist and singer Eric Comstock.

"We’ve tried to present a wider spectrum of jazz performers in recent years, so there is something for everybody," says Don Jay Smith, who does marketing for the New Jersey Jazz Society and is a founder of the Community Theater of Morristown. "Bringing in younger performers can be a great way to introduce kids to jazz."

The venue is delightful, for old and young alike. There is lots of shade on the Fairleigh Dickinson campus location and a huge tent for the main outdoor stage. There are lots of fine picnic spots, and food is supplied by the Rotary Club of Florham Park. Jersey Jazz Society has been successful in recent years in attracting young, enthusiastic jazz supporters who are willing to get involved and pitch in as volunteers.

"I think the board, and Joe Lang, who is the president of the group, really pushed to make this festival more eclectic," Smith says. Lang has come to believe that the traditional jazz played at the festival was geared for an aging population. He wants to encourage younger people to gain an appreciation for jazz, and also wants to present a broader spectrum of jazz styles for everyone.

This year festival favorites, including clarinetist Davern and guitarist Pizzarelli, will be on hand along with the Frank Foster Big Band, the Winard Harper Sextet, the Houston Person Quartet, vocalist Rebecca Kilgore with guitarist Eddie Erickson, cornetist Ed Polcer and his band, pianist John Sheridan, bassist Rufus Reid with guitarist Ronnie Ben Hur, saxophonist Tabackin and his quintet, saxophonist Frank Wess and his quintet, the Academies at Englewood Band, and a bevy of New Jersey Jazz Society Scholarship winners.

Scholarship winners who will be performing include trumpeter Jonathan Barnes of Rowan University, drummer Jerome Jennings of Rutgers bassist Peter McCullough of Jersey City University, and pianist David Stolarz of William Paterson University.

Dorthaan Kirk, who does artist relations for WBGO-FM, Newark, a listener-supported National Public Radio affiliate, will be honored this year with the Jazz Society’s "Lifetime Achievement" award. Kirk, the widow of multi-instrumentalist and jazz innovator Rahsaan Roland Kirk, is originally from Houston, Texas. She has been with the station since its inception in the late-1970s. She has been instrumental in bringing different musicians into events and concerts the radio station holds, as well as events like the annual Newark Festival of People.

"Even if the weather does not cooperate, people should realize, we have a big main stage tent," Smith points out, "and we also use the Dreyfuss Auditorium and a smaller facility, the aerobics room, for the duos and solo performers."

Students, including college students, pay just $10 for admission to the festival. The nearby Dolce Hamilton Park Conference Hotel is offering special low room rates for all festival attendees. "All three stages are within 300 yards of one another," says Smith, "and we’ll have our merchandise tent, where all the CDs from participating artists will be available for purchase."

Honor the old, open up to the new, and enjoy the ambiance and the company of jazz fans – young and old – at JazzFest 2004.

– Richard J. Skelly

JazzFest 2004: Celebrating Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, and Fats Waller, Fairleigh Dickinson Campus, Florham Park. $40 per day or $75 for two-day package. Call 732-271-7721 or visit Reservations: 800-98-DOLCE. Saturday and Sunday, June 12 and 13, from 10:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.

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