A Day at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 2014

The Bucky Pizzarelli Trio at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 26 June 2011.  Photograph by Richard Brewer

A Bucky Pizzarelli trio at the Elkhart Jazz Festival, 26 June 2011. Photograph by Richard Brewer

Elkhart, a middle-sized town in northern Indiana, holds a jazz festival every year on the weekend closest to the Summer Solstice. Katy and I drove down for the Saturday afternoon session this year.

Jazz musicians don’t tend to be early risers, so not much was happening until 10 or 11 AM other than high-school jazz bands performing either on the outdoor stage in the Civic Plaza or in the 1500-seat Lerner Theatre (built as a vaudeville and movie house in 1924 and re-opened after restoration in 2011). But the high-school bands that come to Elkhart are worth listening to; they’re well rehearsed, they swing, and they almost always have one or more excellent soloists.

The  jazz groups perform in several venues–the two already listed plus the Knights of Columbus hall (the only venue where alcohol is served),  the New Life Community Church, and a couple more. Performances last an hour. Half begin on the hour, the others on the half-hour.  By careful scheduling combined with fast foot work, it’s possible to hear four or five complete sets and get a good taste of four or five other groups before things wrap up for the afternoon.  There’s usually enough going on that you’re likely to miss 2-4 groups that you’d like to hear if you attend just one session of the festival as we did.

We began with a Dixieland band, the River Rogues. One of the strengths of the Elkhart Festival is that it includes a wide variety of jazz forms, old to new. The seven Rogues are from Grand Rapids, Michigan, so the river is not the Mississippi, the Swanee, or even the Wabash (It’s the Grand). The band provides an energetic, enjoyable romp through the Dixieland repertoire.

About 11:30 we hustled over to Alfonso Ponticelli & Swing Gitan, Swing Gitan is the name of the Chicago-based group and Ponticelli is the guitarist leader. Others involved were a virtuoso violin player capable of playing notes so high they resembled the call of the broad-winged hawk, as well as a bassist and a cimbalom player. The cimbalom, a form of dulcimer played with two spoon-shaped hammers, is popular in Hungary.

The Festival program identifies the musical style of the group as Gypsy Swing.  In their high-energy, lengthy renditions, the group has what I don’t doubt is a Gypsy sound, but not, to me, a sound very close to Django Reinhardt and Stephane Grappelly. Perhaps Gypsy Swing has moved on.

We moved on, to two other guitarists, the duo of Bucky Pizzarelli and Ed Laub. Bucky is 88 years old and has played guitar professionally for 70 years. I don’t remember if he performed at the first Elkhart Jazz Festival in 1988, but I’m pretty sure he’s been here all through the 2000s.  He is, of course, one of the great jazz guitarists, rhythm but also single-string improvisation. Laub, his current partner, plays guitar and sings in a relaxed style.

One of the first tunes they played was Two Funky People which according to Bucky was composed by Al Cohn,  based on the chord changes of Street of Dreams (a Victor Young tune from 1932). One of Laub’s first vocals was a pleasant version of  Then I’ll Be Tired of You, an under-appreciated love song by Arthur Schwartz and Yip Harburg. Harburg also wrote the words for the songs in “The Wizard of Oz”–as well as Brother, Can You Spare a Dime and April in Paris, among many.

A new young singer that we wanted to hear was scheduled to start a half hour before the Pizzarelli-Laub set ended, so we slipped out and moved to the Knights of Columbus Hall, not far away, in time to get good seats for the Lena Seikaly trio.

Ms Seikaly–tall, dark-haired, and striking looking–is a major new talent. Several of the tunes were from her recent CD,”Looking Back”, which features songs mostly from the 1920s and 1930s, especially ones recorded by Ethel Waters, Billie Holiday, Mildred Bailey, and Ella Fitzgerald. As far as influences go, I didn’t hear much connection to Ethel Waters or Mildred Bailey but traces of Ella and Billie are there–as they almost have to be in any young female jazz singer. Ms Seikaly did Foolin’ Myself this day, beautifully — a nice tribute to the early Billie. Possibly Ms Seikaly’s scat singing on another couple of songs represent Ella’s influence, though in form they seemed more connected to the modern instrumental jazz of recent decades.

Ms. Seikaly has the vocal equipment, musical education (vocal performance, mezzo-soprano, at U. Maryland), stage presence, and enthusiasm for jazz to do great things.  My only question is whether the America of 2014 cares enough about jazz to support her efforts or the efforts of the many other excellent young jazz musicians that are coming along.

It would be unfair to say that female vocalists have been a neglected  category at Elkhart; there have been a couple  who were regulars for considerable stretches of time.  I’m thinking of Becky Kilgore and Joan Collaso.  Becky Kilgore was the key member of a group that used for its name the acronym BED. It stood for Becky, Eddie (Erikson, guitar), and Barrett (first name Dan, trombone). In later years, a bass player, Joel Forbes, sometimes joined the group, which might then be called the  Rebecca Kilgore Quartet.  Ms Kilgore did most of the singing–straightforward, unadorned readings of the American song book in a clear, persuasive voice. Barrett, a fine soloist, has played in many contexts including the sound-track of several Woody Allen movies. He was the trombonist in the band that Woody took to Europe (in the documentary “Wild Man Blues”) If my memory is correct, Barrett was the only  member of the band–except Woody (on clarinet)–who had a solo included in the movie.

Ms Kilgore is from Portland, Oregon.  The second female singer presented at many Elkhart festivals, including something like the last dozen, is Chicagoan Joan Collaso.  The Elkhart program states that “she blends the textures of jazz, R&B, Blues, and Gospel.” Other than these two women, though, female singers have been few and far between, so I was glad to see Ms Seikaly on the schedule.

About 2 PM, we started back toward the Lerner Theatre but stopped on the way to catch most of the set by the Gene Knific Trio at the outdoor stage in the Civic Plaza. This is probably the largest venue, with vast expanses of folding chairs. Its excellent  sound system  had no trouble with the nuances of the acoustic trio of piano (Knific), bass (Geoff Saunders), and drums (Evan Hyde).  The three young men are talented and well-schooled.  Knific and Hyde have western Michigan connections and all three have Florida connections.  Knific is a student of Shelly Berg, a well-known pianist and jazz educator at the University of Miami school of music–and performer at  several earlier Elkhart festivals.

Like nearly every group,the trio had a new CD for sale at the end of their set.  Their CD (“If I Could Find You”) includes some original compositions, some jazz-tinged classical music such as the first movement of Faure’s Requiem in D Minor, and popular songs such as  On the Sunny Side of the Street and I Hear a Rhapsody.  The trio’s version  of the latter could be named I Hear a Fugue.  The opening contrapuntal section is a refreshing contrast to the florid treatments of the song we usually hear.

After a late lunch at the beer-and-wine-garden tent next to the Lerner Theater, we caught the Pat Mallinger quartet with Bill Carrothers , a fine example of the saxophone-with-rhythm-section instrumentation that was the small-jazz-group model for decades. Mallinger, who plays all three saxophones, lives in Chicago.  Carrothers, the pianist, lives in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, far from any population center, but spends several weeks every year performing in Europe. At least that’s the latest information I found on the Web.

We finished the afternoon by staying put in the same space to hear the EJF All-Stars. The All-Stars seem to be the 2014 descendant of Bill Allred’s Classic Jazz Band, which played at the Elkhart festival for many years. For 2014, the group has shrunk from an octet to a septet, and a few long-term members are gone.  But the All-Stars do a fine, professional job of producing the main-stream jazz of the 1930s-1950s. Allred on trombone, Eddie Metz, Jr., drums, and Terry Myers, saxophone, were returnees.

Halfway through, Shelly Burns, wife of guitar and banjo player Bill Dendle, one of the new guys, sat in long enough to sing a couple of songs. One was another entry in the under-appreciated section of the American songbook– I Thought About You, words by Johnny Mercer, music by Jimmy Van Heusen.  The impromptu rendition was nice but not as nice as Karin Krog’s recording of about 40 years ago.

The room filled up. At a little before 5 PM, only one other group was still performing. Things would  heat up again when the Saturday evening session started at 6 PM. One of the two festival headliners would play from 8 to 10.  This was Aaron Neville, a singer of whom I know little.  The other headliner–the Preservation Hall Jazz Band–had played Friday evening at 8 PM.  The festival typically begins around 5:30 PM on Friday and runs to around 4 PM Sunday.

Katy and I moved out to the corridor to help make room for late-comers for the All-Stars. We found a couple of seats and stayed a few more minutes–the end of  a pleasant day at the festival.