Last year I got a call from old friends of mine in Healdsburg, CA, Maggie and Hank Skewis of Skewis Wines. They said I HAD to come to this wonderful, intimate festival in their beautiful little city in Northern California wine country. I started planning right away and managed to work it in with a trip I needed to make for research on a book. As a musician myself and not a critic or a professional writer (book project aside) I am not prone to picking apart the work of others publicly. In truth there was not much of anything to pick apart at this set of concerts; but just to be clear, this report is meant to introduce the reader to this wonderful festival and not to give an in-depth tune-by-tune review.
Billy Higgins, a personal friend of the festival's artistic director, Jessica Felix, had been an important part of the festival since its inception, and this year's event was to be a tribute to him. Sadly, it had to be a memorial instead. Had he survived, he likely would have performed (with the approval of his doctors, as I understand it), but his generous spirit could be felt everywhere none the less.
The festivities began on Wednesday, May 30, with the Gala Dinner and Concert, a fund raiser for jazz education programs connected with the festival. After an outdoor reception featuring some of the delicious wines produced in the neighborhood, we were treated to a set by the Billy Higgins Trio, with Famodou Don Moye taking the drum chair, Ray Drummond at the bass and Craig Handy playing tenor and soprano saxophones. Needless to say, the audience was treated to a very fine performance that included standards like "Stella By Starlight" and "Summertime" as well as blues in the form of Sonny Rollins' "Sonnymoon For Two" and an extemporaneous calypso, all explored with the depth and joy that one would expect from three masters such as these. Even the well worn among the selections were performed with a sense of discovery and surprise that is the essence of jazz.
You probably would had to have been there to fully appreciate this, but if you can, picture listening to this music in a beautiful dining hall with live but clear acoustics, windows all around looking out on some of the most beautiful scenery imaginable and a glass of good wine close at hand. Now that you have that in mind, understand that the meal that followed was, on a culinary level, equal to the music that preceded it, and that the proceeds of the evening went to a very good cause and you have an evening well spent.
The Jazz Education Program, which is supported in part by the admission fee to the Gala, serves the local schools of Healdsburg and Geyserville, CA. It arranges for some of the finest jazz and blues musicians in the region to work with the children in both elementary and secondary schools. This past season musicians like Ed Kelly and Charlie Musselwhite presented lecture concerts to junior and senior high school students; the Oaktown Jazz Workshop worked individually with members of the Healdsburg High School Jazz Band; Babatunde Lea and his band, the Jazz Guerillas, worked with fifth and sixth graders as part of their American history program; and Tacuma King lead a six-week Percussion Song and Dance workshop for children of all ages (including grown-ups). During the days preceding the festival Ray Drummond, Craig Handy and Don Moye also toured the schools. As I said it was an evening well spent.
The festival continued on Thursday evening, May 31, with Jazz Night at the Movies. Jazz film collector Mark Cantor presented performances from his extensive collection, focusing mainly on televised performances from the fifties and sixties. The theme was musicians who were "glossed over by the recent Ken Burns documentary on Jazz." Organized into four sets, each with a thoughtful introduction by Mr. Cantor, the program treated us to a marvelous array of performances by, among others, Count Basie, Kenny Clarke and Bud Powell, Bill Evans, Dizzy Gillespie, Mahalia Jackson, Gene Krupa with Roy Eldridge and Anita O'Day, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, Thelonious Monk, Gerry Mulligan, Clark Terry, Dinah Washington and Joe Venuti. The evening finished with three kinescopes of songs performed by Billie Holiday that Cantor had just restored and which had not been viewed publicly since 1956. The presentation was both comprehensive and very generous.
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