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October 5, 2012

STAWAR: All that jazz

> SOUTHERN INDIANA — I’ve been interested in jazz since I first heard a cornet player by the name of George Finola perform at the Blue Angel in New Orleans in 1973. Finola billed himself as “The World’s Greatest Cornetist.”

I played the cornet in high school and that notion really impressed me. Even if it wasn’t exactly true, it was close enough for me and I’ve never forgotten how terrific he played.

If you read anything about the history of jazz, they usually start out by saying something like, “Jazz is the quintessential American art form.” This is because of jazz’s great diversity, freedom and creativity. It’s a gumbo of multiple cultural influences, interlaced with improvisation and variations on themes.

Jazz, captures the American experience unlike any other musical genre. Jazz soloists playing within an ensemble setting can also serve as a metaphor for one current controversy — how we can value individual achievement, yet integrate it within the context of people working together? And perhaps most important, there is nothing cooler than jazz.

There are a lot of different kinds of jazz, but I suppose my favorites are Dixieland and what is usually called “Cool Jazz.” I’ve read that Dixieland Jazz is the most frequent type of music played at political rallies, not only because it’s bright, energetic and uplifting, but also because it is the music that Americans as a group find as most likable and least offensive.

Cool Jazz is the postwar jazz of the ’50s and ’60s that I grew up with and learned to appreciate. It was a mellow counterpoint to the prevailing frenetic bebop style. I would still give anything to just once sound like trumpeter Miles Davis or Chet Baker.

I have to confess, however, that despite my interest I’m sort of a fair-weather fan. I don’t go to that many performances and have only seen a few of the most revered jazz venues. I’ve listened to music at New Orleans’ Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor, the Sharecropper in Memphis and went up to Indianapolis’ Jazz Kitchen for my birthday a couple of years ago, but I still don’t see myself a serious fan.

I was disappointed when the Jazz Factory closed its doors in Louisville and, although I can’t say anything against Wick’s Pizza, I thought it was tragic when New Albany lost Speakeasy’s, a potentially great local jazz venue.

Of course, Southern Indiana is fortunate to have saxophonist and jazz educator Jamey Aebersold, whom I’ve been fortunate enough to hear play on many occasions. My wife Diane and I have especially liked hearing him perform at the old Hoosier Theatre in Vevay. In fact, he is scheduled to play there this Saturday night, Oct. 6, at 7 p.m.

A few weeks ago, we saw his quartet perform at the Tyler Park Jazz Festival in Louisville. This was the first outdoor music festival I’ve ever attended. The crowd was enthusiastic and the weather and the music were terrific.

Just a few weeks later, Diane and I attended our second music festival, the 31st Annual Savannah Jazz festival. We were taking a late vacation near Savannah and as luck would have it, we had planned to be in town one night during the festival.

We went to the festival’s “Blues Night” at Forsyth Park, the Savannah park with the large fountain featured in the film “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” Although tiny in comparison with New York’s Central Park, Forsyth Park easily qualifies as a great one.

Not only is the band shell and stage impressive, right behind it is a Starbucks, with the cleanest public restrooms I’ve ever seen. Conservative humorist P.J. O’Rourke, who believes in limited government, once said that public restrooms are an example of what happens when the government runs something. O’Rourke should check out the Forsyth Park restrooms that Mayor Edna Jackson and the city of Savannah have managed to produce.

At the time of the festival, both sides of the park were lined with vendors selling all sorts of food and drink, popular and craft beer and festival souvenirs. I controlled myself and only bought a T-shirt and poster. Besides the performances, the best part was watching all the jazz and blues fans. There were people of every age, race, gender and description attending. And with only a modest police presence, the crowd was exceptionally well-behaved. I saw a lot of older men wearing faded jazz festival T-shirts, ponytails and sandals, as well as tons of what I took to be art students.

All the art students were there because the city of Savannah has pretty much been taken over by the Savannah School of Art and Design (SCAD). SCAD has more than 10,000 students and they seem to own every other building in town. Before going to the festival, we stopped at the Gryphon Team Room, which turns out is owned by SCAD. It’s right across the street from a SCAD Store that sells artwork. Our waitress at the Tea Room was a SCAD performing arts major and when we parked on a side street near Forsyth Park, it was in front of a bed and breakfast owned by, you guessed it, SCAD.

Since the Savannah Jazz Festival has been going on for more than 30 years, many attendees have their system down pat. We arrived early, brought our lawn chairs and sat in the middle section, as the aroma of smoking barbecue permeated the air. The people to our right set up what looked to be a large buffet and everyone in their party was holding an enormous glass of white wine.

As for the music, our favorite was the opening act, a local acoustic blues duo, by the name of Amburgey and Hanson. Michael Amburgey is said to be one of Savannah’s best guitar players, but the real standout was Bobby Hanson, dressed in a dapper suit and tie and playing the blues harp.

They were followed by Savannah State University’s Gospel Choir and the Eric Culberson Band, featuring amazing guitar blues licks by Mr. Culberson. Although we weren’t able to stay, the night ended with Li’l Ed and the Blues Imperials, a well-known, high energy, Chicago Blues band.

I never went to rock concerts or festivals as a youth so perhaps my recent jazz festival experiences represent making up for lost time. Maybe in a couple of years you’ll see me regularly at these events, with my ponytail and sandals, hauling around an enormous glass of wine.

I’m ready now, I’ve got the T-shirt.

— Terry L. Stawar, Ed.D., lives in Georgetown and is the CEO of LifeSpring the local community mental health center in Jeffersonville. He can be reached at tstawar@lifespr.com. Checkout his Welcome to Planet-Terry blog and podcast at www.planetterry.wordpress.com.

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