From the NY Hot Jazz Camp & Gotham Jazz Fest

I spent the week of April 22-28 in New York volunteering at the New York Hot Jazz Camp at the Greenwich House Music School, which culminated in the Gotham Jazz Festival. I missed these two events last year due to having houseguests (at least, they were musicians), but I have been participating every year since the first camp in 2016. All available slots were filled, although there were a couple of late dropouts. This year there were several students from Europe, more than in any year I can remember.

The camp has always followed pretty much the same format: sectional instruction by instrument, jams, and bands comprising one member from each section that all play at the festival. There is also a faculty band. This year’s faculty was: Mike Davis, trumpet; Dan Levinson, reeds; Tal Ronen, bass; Ron Wilkins, trombone; Cynthia Sayer, guitar and banjo; Kevin Dorn, drums; Rossano Sportiello, piano; and Catherine Russell, vocals. Only Wilkins was new to me. This camp has always had a top-notch roster of instructors.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Augmenting the practice sessions was a lecture most afternoons by an authority in his/her subject. One lecture by the noted jazz critic and author of numerous books and liner notes Will Friedwald featured women composers—mainly Dorothy Fields, who was unquestionably the best known but by far not the only one. Another by vocalist Queen Esther (who has been a faculty member in the past) covered what started out as a rundown of contributions by black Americans to popular music but morphed into a demonstration, complete with dancers, of how musicians need to be cognizant of dancers’ needs when playing at events where dancing is advertised or anticipated. Yet another lecture was by the visiting Chicago bandleader and multi-instrumentalist Andy Schumm, who talked about getting and keeping gigs.

New York Hot Jazz Camp faculty band, from left: Rossano Sportiello, Tal Ronen, Dan Levinson, Cynthia Sayer (partly hidden), Catherine Russell, Kevin Dorn (mostly hidden), Mike Davis, Ron Wilkins. (photo by Bill Hoffman)

Being held in Manhattan, campers were exposed to numerous opportunities to see professional musicians in the evenings. I saw Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks, the Louis Armstrong Eternity Band, the recently formed High Society New Orleans Jazz Band (essentially Woody Allen’s band without Woody), all at Birdland. I must mention that during each set Vince holds up a copy of this newspaper and encourages the crowd to subscribe. He keeps spare copies at the CD table in the back of the room.

Then at Mezzrow on Tuesday there was a quartet of Evan Arntzen, Scott Robinson, Darrian Douglas and Barry Stephenson; and Champian Fulton’s trio played two sold-out sets there Thursday. I also spent an hour or so at the regular Tuesday night jam at Mona’s. Andy Schumm was in town toward the end of the week, and I took in his gig at Foxtail with Mike Davis, Jay Rattman and Dalton Ridenhour. A slightly larger variation of this band also played at the festival. It’s always a treat to see Andy, as it was to see the other bands, many of whose members are personal friends.


Then on Saturday afternoon I attended pianist Richard Dowling’s concert at Barge Music in Brooklyn. It was an all-Gershwin program ending with “Rhapsody in Blue.” Barge Music is an actual barge docked on the East River at the foot of Brooklyn Heights. Not an easy place to get to, but I managed to find it, and worth the effort.

On most afternoons after the sectionals there was a camper jam at the Doubletree Hotel on W. 29th Street, where many out-of-towners stayed. I did not attend any of these, as I had reservations for the early show at Birdland on most days.

The dress rehearsal for campers occurred Saturday morning. Six bands, each with a faculty advisor, played at the festival on Sunday. The bands adopted names for themselves, such as “Seventh Avenue Seven” and “Jazznauseum.” On Sunday each band played a three-tune set. One tune was “The Sheik of Araby,” but with new lyrics by its trumpeter Jim Caplik that I just had to share with you: “I’m the Sheik of AirBnb / Your rent belongs to me / When you need a place to sleep / You can stay in my flat real cheap / Here’s a lease for you to sign / Your deposit will soon be mine / I’ll meet you with the key / ’Cause I’m the Sheik of AirBnb!”

On Saturday afternoon there was an optional walking tour of Tin Pan Alley. This was scheduled to be led by Ramona Baker, who should be familiar to all of you. But she had a schedule conflict and could not do it. Her replacement did not do as good a job as I’m sure Ramona would have done.

A pot luck (or as it was called, “out of luck”) party at GHMS on Saturday evening that included a jam wrapped up the camp. A more formal event scheduled for that time had to be canceled.



The one-day Gotham Jazz Festival is held annually, usually in April, in (where else?) Manhattan, New York. It’s co-produced by New York Hot Jazz Camp creators Molly Ryan and Bria Skonberg, and Prohibition Productions head Patrick Soluri. The event features many of the top NYC jazz bands and sets by the Camp student bands and faculty. Most sets lasted 75 minutes, although a few were an hour.

This year for the second time the festival was held at The Downtown Association at 60 Pine Street in the Financial District, one block north of Wall Street. I was not able to attend last year, so this was my first look at this imposing venue. No expense was spared in its construction or decoration. The interior walls are lined with murals and prints, mostly with a geographic theme. The building is worth a visit even if you didn’t come for the music.

There are two ballrooms on the third floor for the largest bands, a lounge/bar on the first floor for smaller groups, a smaller gallery on the second, and a library midway between floors 1 and 2. There is an elevator in the building but I found it too slow to bother with.


The day was divided into two sessions, and everyone was required to leave the building between them so the rooms could be reset. This was also the practice at a previous venue, the Players Club. The DTA, like its predecessor, is a landmark building, but is much larger and more accessible by subway. I found it to my liking.

A total of 17 bands (not including the student and faculty groups), four solo pianists, and the Camp vocalists performed individual sets. In addition, there was dance instruction in both sessions. It almost goes without saying that I skipped that in favor of the music. But even so I still had to make choices of whom to see. Consequently I did not attend a full set by any band save for Mona’s Hot Four, who played at the end of the evening.

I caught four of the six Camp ensembles that led off the afternoon sets; each band played three tunes they had practiced during the week, one of which included a vocal. I was only able to see parts of two piano sets—Terry Waldo, and Conal Fowkes with Jay Rattman on alto. I completely missed Quintin Harris and Ramona Baker.


So rather than write a too-long report on what I did see, I’ll just give you what to me were the Festival’s highlights, not necessarily in priority order. I hope this whets your appetite to come next year.

♫ The duo of Evan and Arnt Arntzen on reeds and strings, respectively. Both are also capable singers and treated us to a few vocals. Near the end of their set they were joined by their uncle, trumpeter Leif Arntzen who lives in New York but whom I’ve never encountered in my wanderings around the city.

♫ The Kayla Lewis Trio of Kayla on vocals, her brother Kerry, Jr. on bass, and Jesse Gelber on piano. The Lewises come from a musical family: their father Kerry, Sr., often plays at Preservation Hall and is in the New Orleans Jazz Museum employee band that plays at the former US Mint. The Mint is owned by the National Park Service and Kerry is a ranger there. I saw this band when I was there in February but don’t remember him. But at that time I had no idea of his progeny. Kayla is now at NYU where she’s working on a Master’s in Musical Performance Management (if I have that right). She is a highly accomplished vocalist with a commanding stage presence. Keep your eye on her. She was also a volunteer at the Hot Jazz Camp, so I had ample opportunity to get to know her. Kerry also helped at Camp and filled in in one of the student bands when its bass player had to cancel due to illness.

♫ Bria Skonberg and Eh La Bas, a sextet advertised as all Canadians, but somehow the regular drummer in her band, Darrian Douglas, sneaked in—he’s from Jackson, MS. The other Canucks were the Arntzens, Jen Hodge (bass and vocals), and Andrew Millar (drums and percussion).

♫ The Catherine Russell quintet, with Cat’s vocals backed by Matt Munisteri (guitar), Tal Ronen (bass) and a drummer and pianist whose names I did not recognize. Cat’s years of experience and ability to hold the audience in the palm of her hand clearly came to the fore. The Campers who came for vocal instruction could not have had a better teacher. Some of you may know that Cat’s father, Luis Russell, played a major role in Louis Armstrong’s band in the late 20s.

♫ The quintet led by Andy Schumm (trumpet/clarinet), Jay Rattman (bass sax), Dalton Ridenhour (piano), Josh Holcomb (trombone) and Josh Dunn (guitar). This was the first time this exact group had played together but you would never know it.

If you are anywhere near New York in April, the Gotham Jazz Festival is time well spent. Next year’s date is as yet undetermined, so check this paper or look on the Internet for the time and place.

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.

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