From America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Lacey, WA

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Related: 2018 Olympia Jazz Festival Cancelled for 2018Olympia’s American Classic Jazz Festival Announces 2019 Return!Festival Scene in Flux“A Crisis of the Old Order”What Is to Be Done?

Jazz Travels with Bill Hoffman

I had heard good things about America’s Classic Jazz Festival in Lacey, WA, but living on the other side of the country, I had never made the trek to the Left Coast to see and hear for myself. That is, until this year, when enough stars aligned that I was able to work the festival into my travels.

The site–St. Martin’s University–offers four separate venues, each no more than a two-minute walk apart. Other than a tent, all are indoors, and far enough apart that sounds from one do not bleed into the other. Depending upon which band was playing, the Student Union’s and Worthington Center’s seating capacities were over-taxed. The fourth venue, the Marcus Pavilion (a gymnasium) had plenty of seats but its acoustics were like, what else, a gymnasium. The food and merchandise concessions were also in this hall, the sounds from which further compromised the music. This was probably unavoidable, though.

Bands played one-hour sets with 15 minutes in between. There were 15 bands, with most playing six to eight sets. One exception (unfortunately, in my opinion) was the Graystone Monarchs, a ten-piece band led by drummer Josh Duffee, which only had three sets of its own. However, all members of this band, including Josh, also played in other bands. I’ve enjoyed the Monarchs at the Bix Beiderbecke festival, where it’s comprised entirely of Davenport-area musicians. Josh is the quintessential ’20s-style drummer, honoring the legacy of his idol Chauncey Morehouse. To these ears, the Monarchs is the best band of its type west of the Hudson River (east of the Hudson, the nod goes to Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks).

In addition to the organized bands, there were several mix-and-match groups that played only one set each. One unique aggregation—Jeff Barnhart and Charlotte’s Boys—was commissioned by Charlotte Dickison, the “matron saint” of the festival. Fortunately, this band played seven sets, much to everyone’s delight. The band included, besides Jeff on piano, Jim Buchmann on reeds, East Coasters Jim Fryer on trombone and Fred Vigorito (making his Lacey debut) on cornet, Marty Eggers on bass, and the aforementioned Josh Duffee.

Charlotte deserves special recognition. A vibrant 91, she’s in charge of lining up the world-class talent that this festival has become known for. In addition, she is the event’s Perle Mesta—doing whatever is necessary to make attendees feel welcome. Thank you, Charlotte.

One benefit, for me, in attending this festival, was that I got to see several West Coast bands that never make it to my side of the country—Uptown Lowdown, High Sierra, Black Swan, and Grand Dominion. One that I missed, but had seen before, was Bob Schulz’s Frisco Jazz Band.

One characteristic that separated the Monarchs, as well the Chicago-based Fat Babies, from the other bands was that their sets featured mostly ensemble playing, with few or no extended solos. Consequently, their sets included more tunes, to my delight. These two bands played many little-known pop tunes, which required working from intricate and often demanding arrangements.

Unlike other festivals I’ve attended, this one evidently has many more dancers, so space that might have been used for seating was deeded over to the terpsichoreans.

Everyone attending music festivals has different tastes, including myself. One group whose presence at a traditional jazz festival I had trouble fathoming, though it’s on many festival and cruise rosters, was Tom Rigney’s Flambeau. Still, their one set I heard was packed and well received. To each his/her own.

The festival culminated with the afterglow at a restaurant along the harbor in Olympia. Two bands played there—Charlotte’s Boys and Grand Dominion. The music was drowned out by the din of the packed house, but most of what I heard was not the trad jazz that’s the staple of the festival. That, along with the crowded conditions and long wait for seats, makes it unlikely I’d take in this event again.

Otherwise, having thoroughly enjoyed the bands and excellent organization of the Lacey festival, I now have to come up with reasons to get back to the West Coast next June.


Jazz Travels columnist Bill Hoffman is a retired management consultant and is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country and Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.


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