The 2003 Idlewild Jazz Festival felt like a big family reunion picnic. The festival was held at Williamson Island, in Idlewild, Michigan. (During the 1920’s, Idlewild was a popular summer resort for African-Americans. It was called the Black Eden because African-American could engaged in cultural activities. Prominent writers, musicians, artists, and scholars from the Harlem Renaissance vacationed there.) "We decided to hold the festival here because Idlewild is a jewel," Janice Jones said.
Last year, the festival drew 1,500 people. This year attendance increased to 2,000. Jones said they expected most of the people who attended last year to return and bring their friends with them, but the majority of the people that came out this year were first-timers.
Jones and Gal Holland, the festival coordinators, delivered an assortment of jazz talent, which included return performances from the female quintet Straight Ahead, and the Rufus Harley Quartet. On Saturday, the opening day, vocalist Spanky Wilson headlined, and on Sunday the Jazz Crusaders. The festival had its share of highlights and disappointments.
Most of the audience was apathetic. Not even the eloquent tenor saxophonist Diego Rivera could arouse them. Rivera’s quartet performed Saturday evening. The quartet’s set included three Thelonious Monk’s compositions, and a young lions interpretation ofBody And Soul
, which was the best part of their set. "I have a certain affinity for Coleman Hawkins because he was the father of my instrument," Rivera told the audience during the introduction of the Body And Soul
Rivera said Hawkins influenced him. But Rivera’s clean phrases and his economical approach to improvisation were more reminiscent of saxophonist Charlie Rouse. Rivera’s, pianist Rick Roe soloing was decisive, and bassist Andrew Klein made his bass sound like he was plucking the strings with velvet gloves on. Randy Gilispie vigorous stick-work on Lester Leaps In
caused sparks to fly off his drums.
After Rivera wrapped up his set, vocalist Spanky Wilson and her rhythm section took the stage. "Spanky and her gang," the festival’s MC Lopez Loving commented. To warm up the audience, Wilson sent her rhythm section out first. Instead of perking up the audience her rhythm section seemed to irritate them. Some members of the audience began yelling Spanky! Spanky! When Wilson sauntered onto the stage, the audience, for a brief moment, came to life. It appeared they saved their energy and enthusiasm for her. But it didn’t last. After Wilson sang If You Can See Me Now
, and a blues number by Bessie Smith the audience returned to its listless state. And this bothered Wilson. " I need you guys to give me some energy," she shouted to the audience.
Most jazz vocalists feed off their audience. To enliven them, she tried everything short of putting smelling salt under their noses. She got a slight pulse from them when she concluded her set by performing her signature song Last Day of Summer
. Wilson couldn’t connect with this audience.
Sunday was more festive. Lyman Woodard, an unsung master of the Hammond B3 organ, opened the second day. Of Sunday’s performers, Woodard was the most assorted. His drummer Randy Marsh sang a noteworthy remake of vocalist Mose Allison’s satirical songI Don’t Worry About a Thing Because I Know Nothing Is Going To Be Alright
. Woodard had his organ screaming and moaning, which caused people to congregate around the stage. " It looks like everybody is starting to get out of church. So I want to do something with a sanctified feel," he announced to the audience before playingDown In My Own Tears
by Ray Charles. Instead of making his organ moan on this tune, he had it sweating and hopping around the stage like a storefront preacher in the throes of a sermon.
The Michigan High School All Stars (MHSAS), students from Baldwin and Traverse City, MI, took the stage after Woodard’s quartet, which was a huge mistake. They should have opened for Woodard. Saxophonist Diego Rivera led the MHSAS. It was their debut. The MHSAS’s appearance, according to Gal Holland, was important because they represent the future of the music.
Rivera told the audience he only had 24 hours to work with the students, and at times it showed. There were several decent solos, but you could barely hear them because the sound equipment was malfunctioning. Two sound engineers, tried to repair the speakers while a student trumpet player was soloing on Duke Ellington’s C Jam Blues
Despite the interruptions, the students kept their composure. Rivera used the mishap as a chance to educate the audience on each student function in the orchestra. After the engineers got the sound equipment working, Rivera let the students stretch-out on Idlewoogie
, an original tune he wrote for the festival.
With their Caribbean style of jazz music, Orquesta La Inspiracion created a carnival-like atmosphere. The orchestra’s energy was so contagious by the end of their presentation the audience had formed a conga line.
Whereas Orquesta La Inspiracion presentation was celebratory
, the jazz bagpiper Rufus Harley’s set was comical. Harley was chauffeured to the bandstand in a golf-cart. He wore a red turban and a Kilt, and he prefaced every tune with a comical story. "I have the flag of every nationality on my bagpipes, so when I blow I’m blowing up every nationality As a black man, back in the 60’s, I went to New York to purchase a Scottish bagpipe at a Jewish pawnshop. Now that is America for you," he said.
Harley played a duet with his son Messiah, a trumpeter. They performed Lee Morgan’s Sierra
. Morgan’s ballad coming from bagpipes was awkward. Messiah was unpolished. After they finished, Harley called Messiah: "A chip-off the- old- bagpipes."
Harley played his bagpipes accompanied by a string orchestra. He said it was the first time in the history of jazz that the bagpipe has been played with strings. The string accompaniment was a taped recording, which made the historical happening feel contrived.
The Jazz Crusaders closed the festival. Trombonist Wayne Henderson was the only original member. The new line-up included keyboardist Bobby Lyle and saxophonist Everett Hart.
They started their set 45 minutes late. Henderson wore an apron. "I came up here to cook," he shouted. And they did just that.
They got the crowd excited. On Stumble and Bump
Everett Hart had the audience jumping into the air trying to grab and pocket each note that sprung from his horn. Lyle put his keyboard through a hellacious workout on Eleanor Rigby
. He hammered on the keys like he had lead attached to his fingers. But when he finished his circus trip the audience roared. The Crusaders were heavy on showmanship, but they lacked the original Crusaders’ decorum. However, they were able to excite the audience in a way that others couldn’t. Hart and Lyle’s grandstanding proved that showmanship was what this audience needed more of.