I just returned from Suncoast Jazz Festival in Clearwater, Florida. Let’s cut to the chase. It was outstanding in every respect; organization, music, venue and quality of musicians. The festival could serve as a master class on how to build a sustaining jazz festival now celebrating its 29th year. In comparing it to two other highly successful festivals I recently covered, they share several common factors; total local community support, a willingness to consider more modern genres of Jazz without losing the New Orleans tradition and a major effort to attract the younger generation. Additionally, led by Joan Dragon as Chair and Festival Director, Suncoast has successfully developed an excellent sponsorship program to help keep the festival on a sound financial footing.
The menu of first-class musical offering was daunting. Every hour was filled with conflicting choices. Tom Rigney and Flambeau; Professor Cunningham and His Old School; Tom Hook and The Terrier Brothers; Bob Leary; Johnny Varro—so many choices, so little time. Though I sat in all sets for short periods, I decided to spend most of my time with bands that were new to me.
Musically, every set I attended ranged from excellent to outstanding and, in a couple of cases, even better. Wycliffe Gordon’s trombone playing was in the latter class. Growling then lyrical, he makes his instrument a true “voice” telling a story with “It Don’t Mean a Thing” or “Cottontail” followed by “Sunny Side of the Street”. His sidemen were no less outstanding: veterans Harry Allen on sax, Tommy Cecil on bass, and Jason Marsalis on drums together with two first-class local musicians, John O’Leary on piano and James Sugg on trumpet. Before his set, Wycliffe was presented with the “Sunny Award” for his work with youth. His master class on Friday was packed with about 90 youngsters.
Earlier, in another exceptional set, Jason Marsalis and The 20th Century Trad Band, offered a “BGQ Exploration” paying homage to BG, Hampton, Wilson, and Krupa. I never knew Marsalis was such a talented vibraphonist. With Joe Goldberg, clarinet, Dave Boeddinghaus, piano and Gerald Atkins, drums, closing one’s eyes one could believe that it was a live performance by the originals. “Sweet Lorraine,” Lady Be Good,” and the final “Moonglow” transported us back to the heyday of the BG Quartet. This is a new project for Marsalis and his New Orleans-based cohorts. Don’t pass it up if they come your way.
Friday evening, we were treated to an innovative approach to a swing dance party. The concert room was converted to a dance hall with seating set up in a big U-shape around a huge dance floor. Starting at 6.30 with 30 minutes of instruction, the rest of the evening featured one hour each of four outstanding bands playing dance-hall style rather than the usual concert mode. Tom Hook and the Terrier Brothers started followed by the Dave Bennett Quartet then Professor Cunningham and his Old School and finishing the evening with Tom Rigney and Flambeau. What an incredible party! The local Cat’s Meow Swing Dance group brought many locals to join in and partner with would-be dancers. It was wonderful to see the number of young people. It took me back 70 years to watching my aunts and uncles dancing to the big bands.
A particularly moving moment came at the end of Dave Bennett’s turn. For the last number, following a particularly hot and swinging four minutes, he had all the dancers sit on the floor in front of the stage where he also sat down, without microphones, and led them in a very moving rendition of “How Do I Love You?”
Bennett, with his quiet demeanor and hot clarinet, now in his 10th year at Suncoast, continues to be one of the favorites if one is to judge by the number of people who contribute a significant sum to be named as “sponsor.” It is a well-earned accolade for this unassuming musician who lets his instrument talk for him. A superb interpreter of Benny Goodman, Dave also recognizes the importance of reaching a younger audience. His Saturday evening “Rock and Roll” set literally had the room rocking.
With four venues running concurrently there was ample opportunity to catch most of the bands. So, if dancing wasn’t your thing, at the same time there were several outstanding trad bands to enjoy. Cornet Chop Suey offered a “Tribute to Louis Armstrong.” I missed that but thoroughly enjoyed their “The Three Louies: Armstrong – Jordan – Prima” the next day.
It was the same with Queen City Jazz Band featuring Wende Harston. This was my first time hearing the Denver-based group. I can now appreciate why they have been featured in so many festivals. Founded 60 years ago. over time the band has evolved musically while staying faithful to the New Orleans tradition. They understand that the future depends on attracting new and younger audiences. Wende Harston, 30 years with Queen City, was profiled in The Syncopated Times by Lew Shaw in February 2016. Reading her life story, one appreciates that she has the right to sing the blues. At Suncoast she was enthusiastically received in several sessions including the Sunday Gospel hour followed by the Jazz Brunch.
The Sierra Seven, is the new name for a band that has been around for more than 40 years. The story of the transition from High Sierra to Sierra Seven has been told several times this past year in The Syncopated Times. I only know the original group from CDs but can testify that, led by Pieter Meijers, reeds. and Howard Miyata, trombone, from the original band, their sound is faithful to the original. This is very much still one of the finest trad jazz bands in the country.
Molly Ryan, vocalist and guitarist with James Langton’s big band in New York, a first timer here, was a pleasant discovery for me. She evokes the big band singer of the 1930s with a lush elegant style. Featured in several sets, she also assisted Wycliffe Gordon with the Youth Master Class. We caught her in “Condon’s Corner,” a small pub-like room with constant “noise” from the crowd. Despite this, Molly, commanded the room drawing enthusiastic appreciation after each number.
It helped that she had an outstanding swinging quartet behind her. Two veterans, Johnny Varro, a New York pianist now retired locally, who sat in with Bobby Hackett and Eddie Condon before becoming a regular with the Jackie Gleason Show, and Tommy Cecil, bass, who I remembered from our days in the ’70s in DC. He has grown into one of the finest on his instrument. I marveled at his versatility and stamina, playing eight sets in two days before heading back to DC for a Sunday night gig
These veterans were joined by two local “youngsters,” Nate Najar, an accomplished guitarist-composer in the Charlie Byrd style and equally talented Jean Bolduc, drums, now freelancing after a ten-year stint as staff percussion instructor for Miami-Dade College.
As noted, this festival places emphasis on supporting youth. In addition to Wycliffe Gordon’s Master Class on Friday, three local youth bands were featured with individual sets. The Tarpon Springs High School Jazz Ensemble is arguably the most accomplished with appearances at several major out-of-state festivals as well as being a regular at Suncoast. The Gibbs High School Jazz Band from St. Petersburg and the Ruth Eckerd Hall Youth Jazz Band are both active on the local scene with regular public concerts. I only managed to hear the Gibbs group and was impressed by the quality of their sound. It was also encouraging to see many of the youngsters hanging around the festival over the weekend.
With all the words about youth I can’t pass up the other end of the spectrum. Two Trad Jazz jam sessions, open to anyone, were offered with most of the participants qualifying as seniors. Voluntarily curated for the past 22 years by Dr. Jim Gover. who explained. “I just call out a number and it’s up to them to take it from there.” It is pure improvisation. Most of the musicians have never played together. Remarkably, it works. A few flat notes but good sound for the most part. If someone doesn’t know the number, they just sit it out. For me it was an hour well spent.
Saturday night we were treated to a CD Release Party hosted by Rachel Domber of Arbor Records for Professor Cunningham and His Old School “Swings Disney” premiere. Adrian, the professor, led his band through a rousing session covering Disney favorites. As expected, the music is exceptionally good.
Finally, a word about the venue. It would be hard to find a more enjoyable location. The Sheraton Sand Resort is literally a stone’s throw from the sand beach of Sand Cay. It was the main venue while across the road the Marriott Suites added additional space. Both venues were extreme comfortable with easy access, trolley shuttle, comfortable seating and an intimate atmosphere.
In all aspects this was a thoroughly enjoyable weekend. I look forward to next year. The dates are November 20-22, 2020. Information: www.suncoastjazz festival.com.