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East Coast Jazz Festival Chalks Up Year 14

Well, Ronnie Wells and her dedicated band of helpers have pulled it off again. For the 14th year in a row they have put together the East Coast Jazz Festival, a kaleidoscope of events including twenty-three ticketed performances on the main stage, eighty-six free, open to the public concerts, workshops and jam sessions, and forty high-quality exhibitors and vendors. Attendance exceeded expectations with an estimated three-thousand people participating in one way or another, including many complete families, which for Ronnie and her cohorts is particularly gratifying.

The formula was the same as in previous years, a combination of local performers and educators bolstered by a number of nationally prominent artists. The nation's capital is home to many fine players such as pianist Larry Brown, saxophonists Davey Yarborough and Ron Kearns, bassist James King, guitarist Paul Wingo, and bandleader Brooks Tegler, not to mention the various military ensembles, this year represented by the U.S. Army Blues Ensemble, On top of this, New York is only four hours up the pike so it was easy for Buster Williams, Lennie White, Richie Cole, Steve Williams, Allison Miller, Lou Donaldson and Dr. Lonnie Smith to drop by. Ali Ryerson came in from Connecticut, Dick Morgan from North Carolina, and Anita Wardell from London, England and we had all the talent we needed for the main stage. Meanwhile, an array of up and coming artists held forth in a variety of smaller rooms and a couple of dozen high-school and youth big bands had the chance to perform in the Doubtree's huge open atrium area.

Overall, the quality only improves from year to year. There is more to see than any one person can cover, but I very much enjoyed an elegant but swinging set from flutist Ryerson and her quartet with Steve Rudolph (I'm biased as I study with her!) Vocalist Wardell with Larry Brown's fine quintet was something of a revelation (I'm biased as I'm British!), and the Tegler Big Band's tribute to Duke Ellington combined quality performance with a jazz history lesson. Later on I enjoyed Lou Donaldson and Lonnie Smith's set, as well as Steve Wilson's work with the Allison Miller's quartet. Richie Cole's "Alto Madness" is always enjoyable and vocalist Rebecca Parris remains underrated. And somehow Ronnie Wells can organize all of this and still find time to prepare a fine set with Ron Elliston.

While all of this was going on, the festival presented a series of workshops. Again, I could not attend all of these, but from what I saw this aspect of the festival is also improving in quality with some serious teaching going on by experienced teachers and clinicians. How invaluable is it for local players and students to get some exposure to artists and teachers such as Ryerson, Cole, Williams, Parris and White? Add to all of this a Gospel Matins on Sunday, and a Senior Citizen's Appreciation Concert and Luncheon on Friday, and this was a non-stop weekend of activity.

Of all the events, however, the central one is the competition, organized by the Fish Middleton Jazz Scholarship Fund, around which this festival is organized. The finalists were heard from on Friday afternoon. I was astounded by the quality of performance from these young people, and all of them deserve a mention so here goes: pianists Alex Brown from Columbia, Maryland, Tigran Hamasyan from the U. S.C Thornton School of Music and Gliad Ronen; vocalists Cheryl Ann Jones from Cheverly Maryland, an ordained minister, and Christina Ewing Watson from Tennessee; trumpeter Dante Winslow from Los Angeles; trombonist Michael Diese, a student at Julliard; and three local saxophonists, Alex Hoffman from Churchill High School on tenor and twins from Walt Whitman High School, tenor player Peter Rierdon Anderson and his altoist brother Will. Will was the first to perform and I was immediately astounded by his technical fluency and fecundity of ideas. The standard never went down from there. I certainly did not envy the task facing the judges, who included Rebecca Parris and Buster Williams. But when the dust settled it was trombonist Diese who took first place, with Will Rierdon Anderson second and Winslow third. All of these won money for scholarships, $3,000 for first place. Later in the festival the winners performed together and, quite frankly, I enjoyed this set as much as any other part of the festival.

As I mentioned in my review of last year's festival, I am not aware of similar festivals being organized in other parts of the country. I think this is a mistake as the formula really works to introduce jazz to the community and to give many young people a chance to hear and to perform jazz, perhaps for the first time. Meanwhile Ronnie Wells is busy working on next year's event while the Rierdon Anderson brother's are busy applying to Julliard and the Manhattan School of Music. If this isn't totally positive for the future of jazz I don't know what is!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: 14th Annual East Coast Jazz Festival
  • Concert Date: February 17-21, 2005
  • Subtitle: Scholarship Competition Again At Heart of the Event
  • Venue: Doubletree Hotel
  • City State Country: Rockville, Maryland
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