Jazz Jottings December 2020

With just about all of the 2020 festivals and jazz parties scheduled since March going virtual or being postponed until late 2021 or 2022, the longtime ACJF director held the line on her early November dates and was able to present the 31st annual Arizona Classic Jazz Festival at the Crowne Plaza Phoenix-Chandler Golf Resort to the enjoyment of some 300+ fans and musicians.

Even with all the safety measures in place, attendance was down to roughly one-third from previous years. Ample masks and hand sanitizers were available along with disposable gloves which dancers changed after each set. Seating in the four venues was appropriately spaced. There was a 20-minute break between sets instead of 15 minutes so only one band was on the bandstand at any time. Disinfectant wipes were on all the stages for bands to use on any sound equipment. The daily schedule ended at 10 pm instead of midnight, which was well received.

Hot Jazz Jubile

Two of the originally scheduled bands opted not to make the trip to Arizona early in the process, and suitable replacements were booked. But it was the last-minute cancellations that put Helen to the test. Drummer Danny Coots along with pianist Brian Holland and guitarist Andy Reiss were exposed to the virus and had to bow out just days before they were due to board a plane in Nashville for Phoenix. (Fortunately all three tested negative.)

Dick Maley
Dick Maley (as if he wasn’t busy enough being the go-to drummer) donned a washboard for one number

This meant bringing in replacements, some of whom had never worked the Festival before, and asking the available musicians, who were more than happy to be playing before a live audience, to do double and triple duty. One attendee observed, “At times, I thought every musician was on every set,” and complimented the substitutes for “bringing new sounds and different songs” to the occasion. It also showed a different side of some of the musicians, like when B.A.D. Rhythm bassist Sam Rocha demonstrated his versatility playing the trumpet and guitar.

Another attendee told Helen Daley, “You have truly lifted the spirits of many souls,” to which Helen added, “Our Festival was the best music ever!”

UpBeat Records

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The North Carolina Jazz Festival originally announced that they were proceeding with plans for their 41st annual festival in 2021, but have since made the decision to postpone the event to February 3-5, 2022. In response to my inquiry, director Sandy Evans said, “In this rather unsettling time of the Covid 19 virus, we really don’t know what the future brings as far as what will be allowed for live performances in the months ahead. In following the guidelines set forth by our Governor for the well-being of all, our decision was based on what is in the best interests of our musicians and fans. Our 2021 musicians will all be with us in 2022, plus an added special set on Thursday night to celebrate the return of jazz to our stage at The Hotel Ballast in Wilmington, on the bank of the Cape Fear River.”

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The 2021 San Diego Jazz Party has been rescheduled for February 25-27, 2022. The announcement by the SDJP board of directors stated, “Under the current COVIT-19 guidelines set up by the State of California, and the operating guidelines for the Del Mar Hilton, we are unable to hold the Jazz Party in February of 2021.”

Sandi Joyce has assumed the SDJP presidency, succeeding the late Dan Reid, who held that position for the past five years and who hosted the 2018-2020 parties. Dan’s daughter Jennifer Reid is the volunteer coordinator.

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In canceling the 2020 West Texas Jazz Party, which for the 54 years has been held in mid-May in the Midland-Odessa area, WTJS president Eric Baker stated, “Due to a recent surge in local Covid-19 cases, the Board of Directors decided to cancel the 2020 party. While we know the virus has a high rate of survivability, it also has a high rate of infection. We cannot in good conscience invite musicians from across the country and expose them and our patrons to potential infection.”

The Colorado Springs Jazz Party has been postponed until October 2-3, 2021.


October 13-17, 2021 have been announced as the dates for the Sun Valley Jazz & Music Festival in Idaho.

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The National Endowment for the Arts announced the 2021 class of Jazz Masters, which includes drummers Albert “Tootie” Heath and Terri Lyne Carrington, and reedist Henry Threadgill. Radio host Phil Schaap was announced as the next recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship for Jazz Advocacy.

Heath—whose late brothers were saxophonist Jimmy Heath and bassist Percy Heath—performed alongside giants of the genre, including John Coltrane, Nina Simone, and Dexter Gordon. Carrington, a bandleader, educator and activist, topped the Downbeat Critics’ Poll this year in the Jazz Artist of the Year category. Her ensemble Social Science was voted the Jazz Group of the Year, and the group’s debut album, Waiting Game, won honors as Jazz Album of the Year in the poll.


Threadgill continues to premiere demanding work deep into his 70s and in 2016 was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his album In For A Penny, In For Pound (Pi). Grammy-winner Schaap has hosted a jazz show on WKCR for 50 years and founded the educational Swing University initiative at Jazz at Lincoln Center. A ceremony to celebrate the 2021 nominees is set for April 21, 2021.

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In a One Day University lecture, Georgetown University professor and musicologist Anna Celenza posed the question, “What makes Frank Sinatra great?” Mentioning that pianist Oscar Peterson said he learned to phrase his melodies by listening to Old Blues Eyes sing, Professor Celenza gave the following response to that question.

“First, he embraced technology. He really revived the way to use the microphone. Second, he was constantly transforming. He didn’t sing things the same way his whole life. He was always thinking of the audience he was trying to reach and the message he wanted to give them. Third, he overcame adversity. In the 1950s, he was down and out. Everyone said ‘Frank Sinatra’s washed up.’ But he came back! We really like a “Comeback King.’ And in the end, I think that’s really what makes Frank Sinatra great.”


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Singer-guitarist George Benson is the latest inductee into the Downbeat Hall of Fame. Benson, who launched his career as a child prodigy in his native Pittsburgh, became a household name in the 1970s and ’80s, thanks to hit singles like “This Masquerade,” “On Broadway,” “Give Me The Night,” and “Turn Your Love Around.” He has won 10 Grammy Awards and an NEA Jazz Master fellowship.

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At the age of 77, Butch Thompson, who was the house pianist and later musical director for Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show, has been dealing with two debilitating challenges: memory loss that he’s been experiencing for the past four years, and a hand disease—Dupuytren’s contracture—that he’s been fighting for 40 years.


The genetic condition, also known as Vikings disease, causes fingers to bend toward the palm. It tends to afflict men of northern European heritage, and Thompson is half-Norwegian and half-Swedish. He does therapy three times a day, plus massaging and stretching. He manages to play the piano fairly well, but has given up playing the clarinet.

Butch maintains a positive outlook and is philosophical about his present condition, saying, “I’m happy I can still play the music, and I remember pretty much how to do it.”

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Helen Jones Woods, who passed away from complications arising from COVID-19 earlier this year, was a member of the International Sweethearts of Rhythm, a pioneering all-female instrumental group that played the Apollo Theater and toured occupied Germany. When she entered the hospital this past July, the nurse on duty was astounded to learn that the 96-year-old was not on any medications.

Woods’s daughter explained: “My mother, who was a nurse, had some rigid rules about how you were supposed to live your life. She did not believe in pharmaceuticals. She only kept toothpaste, mouthwash, and a bottle of aspirin in her medical cabinet. She said the aspirin was for visitors.”

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“Music mends what’s broken, heals what hurts, and is the light in the darkness that will help show you the way back home.” – Musicians Unite

Lew Shaw started writing about music as the publicist for the famous Berkshire Music Barn in the 1960s. He joined the West Coast Rag in 1989 and has been a guiding light to this paper through the two name changes since then as we grew to become The Syncopated Times.  47 of his profiles of today's top musicians are collected in Jazz Beat: Notes on Classic Jazz. Volume two, Jazz Beat Encore: More Notes on Classic Jazz contains 43 more! Lew taps his extensive network of connections and friends throughout the traditional jazz world to bring us his Jazz Jottings column every month.

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