In late April I spent a week in New York, volunteering at the NY Hot Jazz Camp as I have done every year since its inception, and attending the one-day Gotham Jazz Festival at the Players Club, a historic mansion on Gramercy Park South (East 20th St.) on Sunday, the 28th.
The Camp’s 49 students from 5 countries and 15 states plus Washington, DC worked for five days with an all-star faculty: Evan Christopher on reeds, Jon-Erik Kellso, trumpet; Dion Tucker, trombone; Rob Garcia, drums; Jesse Gelber and Dalton Ridenhour, piano; Nikki Parrott, bass; Justin Poindexter, guitar and banjo; and Becky Kilgore, vocals. The campers were put into (roughly) 8-piece ensembles that performed three-tune sets at the Festival.
The ensembles adopted names like “Barrow’d Time,” (Camp is held at the Greenwich House Music School on Barrow Street), Stockholm Syndrome
(reflecting the fact that four students from Sweden attended camp), and “Ragtime Wrecking Crew.” The faculty also comprised a band that played after the student sets. The Camp founders and organizers Molly Ryan and Bria Skonberg joined the faculty band as well as one or two other bands later in the day and the jam that ended the day.
As with previous festivals, I was not able to attend every band’s or pianist’s set, but this year I managed to take in more than I had in the past. The bands were all from the New York area, yet included some I had not previously seen. Three of these that I especially liked were The Hot Toddies, Sweet Meg and the Wayfarers, and the John Gill Jazz Band. The latter, about which more below, was mostly the group that John leads on a regular basis around the city.
Performers I missed included vocalist Queen Esther, the Ben Paterson Trio, and pianist Ehud Asherie, but I had seen all of them before and decided to invest my time in bands I had not seen. Still, I missed the High and Mighty Brass Band and The Ladybugs, along with pianist Jordan Piper.
The Sisterhood of Swing Seven is an (obviously) all-female band patterned after the Sweethearts of Rhythm of the 1940s. In it were Bria, trumpet; Emily Asher, trombone; Camille Thurman, alto; Nikki, bass; Champian Fulton, piano; Molly, guitar; and a last-minute sub, camper Sarah Gooch on drums. Vocals were taken by Bria, Molly, Champian, Nikki, and Camille. The Seven put on a great set, probably without a rehearsal.
The Hot Toddies, led by violinist Gabe Terraciano, has Gordon Webster on piano (but since he has moved to Rochester, I don’t know if he is still a regular), Ian Hutchinson on bass, Justin Poindexter on guitar, and Patrick Soluri on drums. Patrick runs Prohibition Productions which organized the festival and offers an on-going roster of events in the city. Hannah Gill and Edith Boucher-Hazelton provided very alluring vocals. I found this rhythm-dominated band very pleasing.
Another enjoyable group is the Wayfarers, led by vocalist/guitarist/ banjoist Meg Farrell, whom I often see at the Tuesday night jam at Mona’s on the Lower East Side. This quartet has a second guitarist, Thor Jensen, new to me, Ryan Weisheit on bass sax, and Andrew Millar on drums. They mix trad standards, many of them obscure tunes, with Western swing, to good effect.
Twins Peter and Will Anderson brought a quintet, with Dalton Ridenhour on piano, Paul Gill on bass and Phil Stewart on drums. The brothers are long-time favorites of mine and always present a high level of musicianship, even if their fare is not always strictly trad, as was the case here.
But theirs was not the only band playing non-traditional jazz. I listened to part of the Eyal Vilner Big Band set. Its sound favors the bands of the ’50s like Basie’s. This 9-piece (3 saxes, 2 trumpets, trombone, bass, drums, piano) band was tight, and, for the type of music it played, benefited from having vocals by Queen Esther. Although I have nothing negative to say about the band, I did not stay for their entire set. I left after about eight numbers to try to ensure a seat in the library for John Gill’s band. That resulted in some dead time, but my quest was successful.
Gill’s band, all of whose members are very familiar to me, had himself on banjo and vocals; Dan Block, clarinet; Simon Wettenhall, trumpet; Jim Fryer, trombone; Brian Nalepka, tuba; Conal Fowkes, piano; and Kevin Dorn, drums. They featured the repertoire of Turk Murphy’s San Francisco band, in which John played for about 10 years. Thus, we were treated to Jelly Roll Morton and King Oliver material from Murphy’s arrangements that are now in John’s possession. John announced during the set, to many groans, that he is soon moving to New Orleans (and may already be there by the time you read this). New York’s loss is NOLA’s gain.
An enjoyable relatively recent discovery, pianist/vocalist Champian Fulton, had her own piano set in addition to appearing with the Sisterhood. I had seen her only once before, in Lancaster. She has a forceful keyboard style and a pleasing, though not particularly unique, singing voice.
The Gotham festival starts at noon and runs until 12:30AM. There are afternoon and evening sets, so one can buy a ticket for either or both. Sets run from 60 to 75 minutes. The building is closed from 5:30 to 6:30, so everyone has to leave and re-enter. A VIP ticket lets you in the door ahead of the hoi polloi as well as access to the reserved seats in the ballroom, the largest of the three venues in the house. But there are no restricted seats (if there are seats at all) in the other two rooms. No food is available, but there is a cash bar during the evening.
This festival presents the best New York has to offer and is well worth your time. It’s popular with swing dancers, who crowd the back half of the ballroom with their terpsichorean feats. I would advise springing for a VIP ticket, especially if you’re attending both sets, unless you like to stand for prolonged periods of time. Sitting on the floor is permitted in the two smaller rooms, but only if you can find a space.
All Photos courtesy of Neal Siegal
Bill Hoffman is a travel writer, an avid jazz fan and a supporter of musicians keeping traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in greater Philadelphia. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, PA.