Juneau Jazz And Classics
(Author's note: This is part of an occasional series featuring jazz from lesser-known festivals and countries. The summer of 2005 is focusing on North America and Europe.)
Arriving in Juneau by boat is no big deal - it's that or by air, since no roads connect Alaska's capital to the rest of the world. Arriving and spending a couple hundred dollars on tickets for the city's annual Jazz And Classics festival is another matter.
It might not seem unusual in a town of 30,000 that depends largely on a million tourists a year, mostly passengers on large cruise ships. But the 19-year-old festival is primarily aimed at locals, with one or two performances a day at widely spaced venues. There are few "name" performers and it doesn't focus primarily on jazz - or classical or blues - instead balancing each over nine days.
But when David and Juliet Fosh heard about it, they cut short their stay in Vancouver, B.C., so they could navigate their 42-foot Swedish sailing yacht up the Inside Passage in time for the festival. That was sufficiently unusual to attract the attention of organizers, who ensured the couple got to know plenty of locals by making on-stage requests for volunteers to transport them between their boat and the performances.
"We don't feel like we're tourists," said Juliet Fosh, who is attending numerous festivals as part of a worldwide tour with her husband. "We feel like we're part of the community."
Such are the quirks and charm of an event in a city with three times as much rain as Seattle that, at least in area, is the largest U.S. city at 3,081 square miles (nearly all wilderness and water). Venues can be simplistic and acoustics imperfect, but free parking is a few feet away, there's no long lines for Alaskan Ale and restrooms, and raffles may be conducted on a first-name basis by an MC who knows everyone in the room and has more prizes than audience members.
Featured jazz musicians were limited to guitarist Larry Coryell's mainstream/fusion trio and a traditional sextet led by saxophonist Roger Newmann. But they spent considerable time with students and other locals at workshops often small enough for individual instruction.
"There's such an incredible appreciation I see from people here," said Madeline Vergari, Newmann's wife and lead vocalist for the group, which also played at the festival five years ago. "Maybe it's because it's not here as often."
Alaska is home to some decent jazz performers (see separate multi-album review of artists from The Last Frontier), and a handful of Juneau residents play ragtime, traditional and fusion on a somewhat regular basis. But Pam Johansen, the festival's executive director, said the emphasis is performers from Outside (the common term for non- Alaskans).
"I think our mission has been to bring in world-class artists and artists who are very highly recognized in their fields," she said. "While there are probably some in Alaska we're looking to bring our patrons an experience they would not have otherwise."
The unique experiences often goes both ways as icefield flights in helicopters flights, whale-watching tours and other diversions are donated to the performers. Not everything is perfect - the salmon fishing was mediocre with three musicians on separate charters coming up empty. The Fosh couple abandoned their glacier sightseeing when excessive ice in a bay blocked their boat. But Coryell said he was driven to the much-hyped Mendenhall Glacier on the way to his gig and was "amazed to be so close" to the mile- wide frozen river of ice. A general informality also meant Tony Gulizia, Newmann's pianist, didn't have to worry about looking out of place when the luggage with his suit didn't arrive.
TAKING JAZZ BEYOND THE STAGE
The festival was book-ended by two R&B acts aimed largely at a dance crowd, opening with The Holmes Brothers and closing with Cyrus Neville And The Uptown All-Stars, but most of the performances in-between were more sedate.
Newmann's concert highlighted the second day of the show, featuring players from the big band he has fronted for more than 20 years. They played standards and swing/blues originals for a couple hundred people that filled a small downtown hotel banquet room, with Vergari joining for the latter third of each of the two sets.
Newmann's controlled tenor dabbled consistently just outside the predictable, trumpeter Kirk Garrison displayed a preference for tasty high-register phrasing and Vergari's alto cut a strong presence through arrangements well-designed to accommodate her. The arrangements much of the evening were a bit tight with limited solo space, but the audience also got a taste of what their kids experienced during a week of school workshops as aspects of jazz and instrumentation were discussed between songs. Topics ranged from basic - Newmann explaining he was playing a soprano sax, not a clarinet - to drummer Joey Gulizia demonstrating various tones, such as a whiny puppy, that can be coaxed from a Brazilian kawika hand drum.