Storied North Carolina Festival Offers Vibrant Jazz Jams

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Trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg is among the international artists who have performed at the North Carolina Jazz Festival in Wilmington.

(Photo: Mark Robbins)

Saxophonist Houston Person and drummer/vibraphonist Chuck Redd—two of the headliners at the upcoming 40th annual North Carolina Jazz Festival in Wilmington—recently compared the fest to a jazz cruise. The NCJF will take place Jan. 23–25 at the Hotel Ballast, firmly planted on the bank of the Cape Fear River. All the musicians and most festgoers will stay at the hotel, which becomes as self-contained as any cruise ship.

“It’s akin to a jazz cruise, where everyone’s together,” Redd explained. “The musicians run into the patrons in the lobby or in the restaurant, and you develop a connection. ... It has become a destination festival, especially for people on the East Coast.”

“On a jazz cruise,” Person noted, “the ship is like a hotel, so it’s the same thing. It gives the fans more contact with the musicians. It allows the fans to get to know the musicians, and the musicians to sell themselves to the fans. It’s great.”

Like many jazz cruises, the sets are a combination of working bands doing their usual show and jam sessions where players are mixed and matched with peers they might not have played with previously—just to see what sparks could fly. Each jam session has a leader to choose repertoire and tempos, but one session’s leader might be the next session’s sideman.

“It’s a nice format because you get to play with a lot of different guys,” Person said. “It’s a way of keeping abreast of what your peers are doing. When everything’s not so rehearsed, there’s more improvisation. It leads to a lot of work, because you meet guys you click with. You leave your ego at home and have a lot of fun.”

The first night of the 2020 festival will be devoted to working bands. The show will open with Wilmington-based drummer Jon Hill’s band, followed by internationally renowned pianist Emmet Cohen leading his namesake trio. Following that set, the trio will back singer Veronica Swift, and the evening will culminate with Professor Cunningham’s Traditional Jazz Jam. The following two evenings will offer jam sessions, featuring 15 artists who will combine in different lineups. Among the participants will be Person, Redd, bassist/vocalist Nicki Parrott, pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton, trombonist Dion Tucker and bassist Herman Burney.

Unlike jazz cruises, however, the NCJF has a strong educational outreach program. On the morning of Jan. 24, the master musicians will fan out into three Wilmington schools to hold jazz workshops with students. That afternoon, a select number of students will be invited to the hotel to get small group lessons from nine different professionals.

“Back at the hotel, I’ll have six or seven students on drums and vibes,” Redd said. “I’ll assess their abilities, and I’ll find a drummer who can maintain a rhythm and someone who can play mallets. I’ll give them a riff, maybe a blues or something, and we’ll develop it into a tune. We can play something for the parents, and the kids feel like they’ve done something meaningful.”

The NCJF was founded by Harry Van Velsor, a dermatologist and pianist who led a local trad-jazz band. In the late ’70s, he found himself in a Chicago bar with a piano, and after asking the bartender if it was OK, Van Velsor commenced to play. Before long a stranger sat down on the bench beside him and began to pound out some dazzling boogie-woogie. It was Art Hodes, who had collaborated with Sidney Bechet and recorded leader dates for Blue Note. The two became friends, and Van Velsor showcased Hodes as the star of the inaugural NCJF in 1980.

In 2006, Van Velsor handed the leadership role to Sandy Evans, who serves as president of the festival. Evans set out to diversify and expand what primarily had been a trad-jazz affair. She added the working-band sets and the educational activities in schools. And for the jam sessions, she insisted on booking players from a broader array of styles to reflect more of the jazz spectrum.

“It’s all different kinds of jazz,” Evans said of the jam sessions. “I always tell the musicians, ‘Please stretch—do what you want to do when you’re the leader.’ One year, we did a tribute to Charlie Parker With Strings. Someone called me up and said, ‘Sandy, have you lost your mind? Harry will be turning over in his grave.’ The morning after the show, the same person called back and said, “All is quiet in the graveyard.’” DB



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