The Jazz.com Blog
August 09, 2009 · 0 comments
With a population of fewer than 9,000 souls, Litchfield, CT is not the most obvious place to support and sustain a jazz festival—especially when one considers the big city galas that have collapsed in recent times. Yet Europe has shown that the small town jazz fest can work, and a number of US communities have maintained their annual jazz events even in a dicey economic environment. Jazz.com’s arnold jay smith traveled to the Litchfield Festival to check out the action—but found that much of the improvising there was taking place offstage. T.G.
“The town (Kent, Ct.) asked us if we would like to bring our Jazz Camp to their school [the Kent School, an exclusive Prep.],” Arthur Muir, husband of LJF director Vita West Muir, told me on the middle day of the three-day Litchfield Jazz Festival event, July 31-Aug. 2. It turned out to be the only dry day as the terribly wet weather the Northeast has been plagued with continued. A pond –no, a lake—formed in and around the performance tent so the music was moved into the hockey rink. An ad hoc sound system was set up to feed the music, but not the view, outside. I was told that it had been hastily configured in five hours as the rains pummeled the tent. That lake was so deep that the youngsters who frolicked in it had water up to mid thighs.
The arts-y crafts-y town of Kent seemed to enjoy the fact that there was a Jazz Festival, but participation was lackluster. The owner of a bed & breakfast, Peter Starbuck, one of the cheerleaders, tried to rally the other hoteliers, but I was told that they seemed to raise prices rather than reduce them to entice more people to stay over.
The festival itself –in its 14th year and fourth location—exists to support the Litchfield Jazz Camp, a four-week long study-performance with pros such as Don Braden, director, Claudio Roditi, Ted Rosenthal, Junior Mance and Charli Persip, who celebrated his 80th birthday there. [When I asked one rather accomplished pre-teen named Dakota Austin, who was prominently featured in the program, and who had played with Dave Brubeck at last year’s Festival, whether he was going to be a sax player, his reply was, his reply was, “Wotta ya mean going to be?”]
About the weather, Arthur Muir said, “Think what would have happened had we not had this indoor venue.” Festival director Vita West Muir seemed pleased about the move to Kent as well. But she was not her usual busy beaver self as she has been in the past confident that her family and an army of cheerful volunteers were handling things nicely, thank you.
I was told that the rink held more people than the tent. I was not convinced. In addition, there seemed to be fewer people encamped outside. And they couldn’t see the performers. Seemed unfair to charge them. When I got home there was an e-mail from the Litchfield people advising me to bring a tarp or canvas floor “to insure comfort.” We all have those hanging around the house, don’t we?
The kiosks selling crafts and food were not as busy either. One potential vendor said, “Why should I pay their increasing fees when I can’t make that much?” The grounds surrounding the vendors were a marshland.
But we were there for the music, supposedly. Saturday‘s fare included the Brazilian Trio Da Paz with singer Leny Andrade, the clever Wycliffe Gordon-Jay Leonhart group, with Ted Rosenthal on piano, virtuosity in the hands of Benny Green and Bucky Pizzarelli, OctoJAZZarian vocalist Bill Henderson, who had a fall recently and was in pain and having a reaction to meds. The concluding act was the ever-popular Preservation Hall Jazz Band.
Sunday’s fare was Ted Nash’s Mancini Project, Lionel Loueke, Houston Person and Pancho Sanchez. Jane Monheit highlighted opening night with Lewis Nash the warm-up set.
The standout set for me was Henderson’s on Saturday. His rhythm section was Dena DeRose on piano, who was scheduled to play on Sunday with Roditi, Avery Sharpe, bass, and Winard Harper, drums. Henderson’s rich baritone hasn’t lost its timbre or his distinct emphatic pronunciation of the lyrics. The PHJB pleased the crowd. During their oft-played set I left for the afters celebration, a first for Litchfield, at the Fife ‘N’ Drum restaurant in town. High-energy excitement was the fare. The place was packed with cheering throngs who actually got what the musicians were saying: modality a la John Coltrane. I was impressed. There was more excitement there than in the rink.
As I was leaving the festival grounds and while at the Fife I heard comments from veteran LJF attendees. “A non-event.” “Poorly planned.” “Not well thought out.” While these same patrons said that they enjoyed the musical offerings, there were comments about the sound as well as the wet grounds. “Why hold the event in a flood plane?” one obviously well informed local remarked. “They know it rains up here this time every year.” There were also questions about the dearth of the BIG names as in past years. Where were they, indeed?
Publicity Director Lindsey Turner, however, elicited these informal comments;
"Just wanted to let you know that the Festival was great this year, a revelation in fact. The line up was inspiring, the master classes were amazing. I went all three days because I was in Kent. I bought so many CD's and am listening to them right now. Also bring back Lionel Loueke; he was a transformational musician."
"I was there on Saturday and Sunday. On Saturday, the highlight for me was listening to music from both venues (inside the hockey rink and on the lawn [student groups]). On Sunday, the caliber and diversity of the artists themselves was stellar…that, and the lobster! Kudos to all who worked so hard to overcome the challenges the weather created."
"You guys did a phenomenal job at a new site and with unprecedented bad conditions [the weather]. I am so very impressed and grateful. Terrific lineup."
The Fife got a bit over crowded and noisy –it’s a pub after all—so after about an hour I split; they were calling up the amateurs as I left. I had a long drive ahead of me to Brooklyn. Mercifully, the rain didn’t return till Sunday morning.
This blog entry posted by arnold jay smith