The 34th Arizona Classic Jazz Festival, held as usual at the Crowne Plaza Golf Resort in downtown Chandler on November 2-5, was blessed with beautiful weather and even better music. It followed its standard format of four sets on opening night, all in one venue, and then 27 and 28 competing sets, respectively, on Friday and Saturday in four venues, all within the hotel. On Sunday there were 16 sets plus a grand finale. An optional dinner concert was offered that I also attended.
The band roster was very similar to what was presented last year (which I did not attend) and in 2021, my first time here. One new band this year was Brass Nickel from California, whom I had not heard of. While they stuck to the trad jazz repertoire, there was nothing about them that stood out to me. I owed them a listen, but one set was enough.
A perennial fixture at western festivals is Tom Rigney and Flambeau, a Zydeco band. I have opined previously that this is not my favorite genre, so after giving them an obligatory trial some years ago at the Olympia Jazz Festival, I have not seen them since. But I cannot discount their popularity.
Now, to accentuate the positive, I’ll tell you what I did like, and it’s a substantial list (not necessarily in rank order): the Holland-Coots Jazz Quintet and its “subsidiary” Groovus, the St. Louis Stompers, Wildcat Jazz Band, Sun City Stomperz (yes, that’s how they spell it), the Wolverine Jazz Band, Cheryl’s Vintage Jazz, and my (and many people’s) favorite piano duo Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi—more about them below.
Also receiving a high mark is We 3+1, an all-female aggregation. Their pianist and leader Nicole Pesce and violinist Suzanne Lansford are standouts on their respective instruments.
I mentioned that the Crowne Plaza has four music venues. The largest, the San Marcos, holds several hundred people and has a large raised stage. The biggest bands played there and it has dance floors on both sides of the stage. Those floors were well used during many sets, and it was gratifying to see many young dancers.
The second largest room is San Tan, with about 75 seats but no raised stage. This room was set up with two pianos, and Stephanie and Paolo had most of their sets there. Having seen them many times in many different settings, they used both pianos more than they normally do. For these sets, and especially for the one that they shared with Nicole, one (or two) video cameras that projected onto a TV monitor would’ve allowed everyone to see both pianos at the same time. We do this at the Tri-State Jazz Society when we have solo piano concerts so everyone in the room gets a good view. They even let me run one of the cameras. However, I recognize this would probably be very costly here.
The La Ventana room, also with a small dance floor, can seat about 50, but there are two large support posts that partially block the view for everyone in the back half of the room.
The fourth venue is the Patio, located just outside the hotel lobby and thus subject to street noise. It was not used in the evening or for the first morning set and I did not attend any sets there.
All the inside venues had comfortable padded seats, not just metal folding chairs. All venues were within a two-minute walk of each other. Each set ran about 50-60 minutes with 10-20 in between. Front-row reserved seating was offered to attendees who ponied up to sponsor one or more of the bands. Sponsors also got access to the musicians’ hospitality room.
The program booklet cover had a grid-like listing of each day’s schedule and a list inside by band with the time and place of each of their sets. Most bands were scheduled for seven sets. Most played one “educational” set under the theme of “Come, Swing With Me”; I attended several of these. Two I particularly enjoyed were the Fats Waller set by the Holland-Coots Quintet and Stephanie and Paolo’s Erroll Garner tribute that also included Sam Rocha on bass and drummer Danny Coots.
Veteran reed man John Otto, whom I’ve known for almost 20 years from his time with the West End Jazz Band, made his first Chandler appearance with Holland and Coots. He was to go on tour through the Midwest with the quintet immediately after the festival. I trust the Chicago Cellar Boys will find a way to manage without him at their twice-weekly gigs in the Windy City. John is a master at his craft.
With four bands competing for attendance at virtually every set, it was often hard to decide which one to see. I tried to see each band at least once and missed only two—Flambeau and Sentimental Breeze. I learned after the fact that I missed a riveting complete performance of “Rhapsody in Blue” by Nicole Pesce at the start of one of We 3+1’s sets.
Now, about Stephanie and Paolo. I make no attempt to hide my affection for them. I first met Steph at a festival in Connecticut in 2010. I’ve hired them, individually and together, several times at Tri-State, and they’ve often been my houseguests. Their sets are always dynamic and it is fun to see the chemistry between them. I attended all but one of their sets here. Each time I saw an older man using a walker and accompanied by a younger man in the front row, clearly enjoying their sets. After the last one I was doing my S&P “groupie” thing at the CD table and this gentleman approached. It was revealed that he’s Bob Hope’s son Kelly, who unfortunately lost his significant other Carolyn Crocket just last weekend. He reads this paper. Kelly, it was great to meet you, and thank you for your Navy service.
A similar event happened around 2014 when I had gone to the Rochester (NY) Jazz Festival where Steph (without Paolo) had two sets an hour apart. As I waited for her after the second set I saw a man talking to several others, telling them that his father had played with many name bands. At first I thought this was just bluster, but what he was saying rang true to me. I finally asked who his father was. His answer: Tommy Dorsey. He (Steven) had discovered Steph on the web and had come up from Ithaca where his fiancée lived. He wound up taking Steph, her mother, his fiancée, another of Steph’s friends (whom I also knew) and me to a dinner that probably cost him $200.
And now back to our regularly scheduled program. The festival finale was advertised as the Sandra Bassett Motown Experience. With a title like that you can imagine I had some trepidations, but I felt I should at least give it a try. The start was delayed by sound system issues. I lasted about half an hour. This was not the kind of finale I expected at a classic jazz festival, but the back story is important, so bear with me.
This festival is run largely by Helen Daley and her husband Bill, with help from numerous volunteers during the event. They had met Sandra at her show recently. Sandra is the CEO of the Phoenix Center for the Arts. Following some conversation, Sandra said she could provide ACJS with a grant writer—free. Since all non-profit festivals depend on outside funding, this represents a heavy burden lifted from Helen’s shoulders. So maybe having the Motown show was a fair price for this invaluable service. Time will tell.
I had asked Helen and Bill, separately, if they have a succession plan. Their answer was no, but it was not for lack of trying. This, unfortunately, has been the fate of any number of great festivals I’ve attended that are now history. I hope Chandler will not follow this pattern. Next year’s dates have been announced: October 31 to November 3.
My TST colleague Shelly Gallichio and husband Ken Arnold were there and she will give us her take on the festival next month. It was also good to see fellow correspondent Lew Shaw, who stopped by for a while on Saturday. He no longer drives and will turn 98 in January, but looked well and is still very with it mentally.
This was a great festival and I was glad I made the trip from the right coast. From there I went on to the West Coast Ragtime Festival, which you’ll read about next month. In between I planned to visit several national parks in California.