Prescott: Jazz at the Summit
The afternoon was warm and postcard-perfect as Betty and I made the two-hour drive north on I-17 from Phoenix to Prescott, AZ. It was Thursday, August 25, and we had flown from Albuquerque to attend the fifth annual Prescott Jazz Summit, scheduled to begin the following day with a noontime concert at the city's picturesque Courthouse Square.
On arriving, we found that the motel I'd booked was actually in Prescott Valley, about half an hour from the Summit (as the salesmen chorused in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, "...you've gotta know the territory! ). Betty, who was attending her first-ever Jazz festival while in the throes of a nasty head cold, said she wasn't up to making that drive several times a day. "Find something closer, she decreed. So I made a few phone calls, located a motel at the southern end of Prescott and booked a room. So far, so good.
On Friday morning, as we were packing to move to the new digs in Prescott, I remembered that I'd laid my reading glasses on the bed. Unfortunately, the memory was sparked by the fact that I'd just sat on them, popping out both lenses. Not really the best way to start the day, I thought to myself (well, I cleaned that thought up a bit for general audiences). Happily, the Kokopelli Eye Care Center was a few minutes away on Highway 69, and there a helpful young woman named Pam quickly put the lenses back where they belonged. "No charge, she said, smiling (or was it smirking?), and we were on our way.
After checking in at the new motel, we headed for the Courthouse Square where trumpeter Mike Vax was getting a septet ready for a free everyone-is-welcome hour-long concert. Like much of the weekend's events there was an air of easy spontaneity about it, which suited the laid-back ambiance of Prescott itself, a charming city of about 35,000 nestled between scenic hills (a bit too small to call them mountains) in almost every direction. I was reminded of those upbeat Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland films from the early '40s in which the kids were always in some sort of trouble but would invariably come up with a simple yet clever plan to save the day "Let's put on a show! And so they did. Talented as they were, however, Mickey and Judy had a lot of help choreography by the incomparable Busby Berkeley; music by some of the greatest songwriters in the business; and the master craftsmen and women at the MGM Studios' Freed Unit who made sure there were no unwelcome bumps in the road. Vax, who has coordinated the Prescott Summit for each of its five years, has no such resources at his disposal but does the best he can with a little help from his friends. This year, those friends included trumpeter Marvin Stamm, pianist Bob Florence, tenor saxophonist Tony Vacca and drummer Gary Hobbs, a sturdy nucleus around which to build any Jazz festival.
The nucleus was enlarged at various times by high-school bands from Arizona, a number of first-rate players from the Phoenix and Prescott areas, and three musicians who were classmates at Prescott High School before going on to establish successful careers in New York and elsewhere tenor saxophonist Dan Faulk, trumpeter Steve Annibale and bassist Zirque Bonner. Besides those already mentioned, musicians who performed at the Summit included guitarist Jack Petersen; trombonists Doug Tidaback and Peggy Vax; pianists Les Czimber, Armand Boatman and Joel Robin; bassists Tom Winker, Dwight Kilian and Denny Garr; drummers Keith Brush, Dom Moio, Larry Kantor and Mel Zelnick; mandolinist Steve Batt, and vocalists Blaise Lantana (who doubled as mistress of ceremonies), Sherry Roberson and Delphine Cortez. Another guitarist, Brian LaChance, entertained at a fund-raising "meet the musicians dinner Friday evening at Prescott's popular Hassayampa Inn.
The high-school level bands included those from Prescott, Chino Valley and Thunderbird (Phoenix), the Mountain Youth Jazz Ensemble and the superb "Ellington Band from the Arizona Jazz Academy in Tucson. The Courthouse Square concert on Friday set the tone for the weekend, with a sharp three-trumpet front line (Vax, Stamm, Annibale) backed by Petersen, Czimber, Winker and Brush (great name for a drummer). Hobbs sat in on one number, "Route 66, while Brush assumed the role of "band singer. About two hundred people, give or take a few, seated in lawn chairs or on the Courthouse steps, listened to the concert, whose highlights included Gershwin's "A Foggy Day and the ballad "Here's That Rainy Day, each of which represented wishful thinking on an August afternoon in Prescott (the weekend weather was sunny with high temperatures around 90 degrees, warm but still far more comfortable than Phoenix).