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Live Reviews

A Sense of Jazz Community in Ballard, WA

By Published: November 26, 2003

On the subject of influential drummers, Blade declared his admiration for Elvin Jones

The Ballard Jazz Festival
Saturday, November 15, 2003
Seattle, WA

Boats, beer, fish—better add jazz to the list.

For generations, Ballard, WA has been famous for harboring fishing vessels, numerous blue-collar taverns frequented by fishermen, and lutefisk—a pickled fish recipe preferred by Scandinavians who settled here nearly a century ago. Now, following a full day of jazz clinics, concerts and club gigs, this salty Seattle neighborhood is poised to add America’s classical music to its notorious local identity.

On Saturday, November 15, the first Ballard Jazz Festival was enthusiastically received by over 1,200 locals who attended afternoon, evening and late-night festival events.

Drummer extraordinaire Brian Blade and his seven-piece Fellowship band delivered a 45-minute, highlight-filled set on the festival’s mainstage, performing “Crooked Creek,” “Patron Saint of Girls” and “Variations of a Bloodline” among other tunes. Melvin Butler on tenor and soprano sax, and Myron Walden on alto led a two-horn attack for this a rare appearance by the Fellowship.

The unflappable vocalist Nancy King and piano accompanist Steve Christofferson won new admirers for their genuine, heart-felt interpretations of “Mountain Greenery,” “Salt Lake City Blues” and “Straight Into Your Heart.” The duo’s complex, intervallic, vocal/piano unison on Christofferson’s “Out of Town” reaped rewards worthy of the tune’s many musical risks.

A soft-spoken, hard-judging Vincent Herring publicly challenged the New Stories trio to play his charts, and the hometown favorites did better that just keep up with the veteran alto saxophonist from New York City. Under a suspicious gaze and discerning ear, Marc Seales, Doug Miller and John Bishop provoked a permanent grin from Herring following a round of solos on “Timothy.” Grins turned to gapes on “Sweet and Lovely” as Miller’s acoustic bass solo silenced the room with listening and brought down the house with cheers.


Three giant video screens—listing festival sponsors—served as backdrop to a spacious mainstage inside the brand new 1,000-seat Mars Hill Church performance hall. Jim Wilke, the venerable voice of Seattle jazz, presided over the festival’s evening concerts as master of ceremonies.

Earlier in the day, Blade, King, Herring, along with guitarists Kurt Rosenwinkel and John Stowell conducted music clinics and answered questions by any and all bold enough to ask about their art. Student musicians from area high schoolS performed. Dozens of jazz photographs were on view and for sale. And, later that night, the sound of jazz flooded historic Ballard Avenue as festival-goers relaxed and refueled in half a dozen pubs and participating Ballard Jazz Walk venues.

Origin Records’s growing catalog of 50+ recording artists supplied Jazz Walk entertainment: Upper Left trio played Bad Albert’s Tap and Grill; Rich Cole/Bill Anschell quartet filled the Old Town Ale House; Matt Jorgensen+451 packed Conor Byrne Pub (setting a new record for beer sales); Ben Thomas’s group played Bop Street Records; while Scenes with Jeff Johnson and John Stowell held forth at the Lock and Keel Tavern.

But the most interesting Jazz Walk experience had to have been the Jay Thomas/Tom Marriott quintet at the Olympic Athletic Club. More comfortable with free weights and saunas then downbeats and codas, the athletic club staff had set up a dozen or so chairs in the gym in preparation for a never-before encountered Ballard jazz audience. They needed more chairs. At 11pm, the second set had begun with people camped out on the gym floor, bouncing to the beat of Thomas on tenor, Marriott on trumpet, John Hansen at the keyboard, Russ Botton on bass, and an unknown but highly entertaining drummer pressed up into a corner of the basketball court.


In all, Ballard Jazz Festival events combined to create a glowing sense of pride in a community aflutter with first-time festival success stories—a sense of pride not lost on the out-of-towners. Blade, King, Herring and Co. openly praised festival presenters John Bishop and Matt Jorgensen of Origin Records and the Ballard Chamber of Commerce.

Perhaps the most memorable expression of community spirit occurred as Brian Blade was wrapping-up the question-and-answer portion of his afternoon drum clinic for the benefit of few hundred curious onlookers. On the subject of influential drummers, Blade declared his admiration for Elvin Jones’s elliptical, shifting-circle, forward-moving time-feel. On tuning, he likes his drums tuned low and undampened, so that they ring. On composition, instead of focusing on theory, he tries to let the music tell a story. New Orleans music he described as “subterranean,” explaining: “There’s so much weight in the groups.”

Moments later, acknowledging Blade’s request, Seattle-resident and internationally-known guitar guru Bill Frisell joined his friend on stage for an impromptu rendition of “All Blues.” The resulting feast for the ears featured two of the most admired jazz musicians on the planet. Yet, since Brian was our teacher, and Bill a student like the rest of us that afternoon, the mood of the audience and these two great musicians was low-key and neighborly, rather than star-struck. A friendly little jam session was all.

Visit the Ballard Jazz Festival on the web at .

Photo Credit
Steve Robinson

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