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Sun and Stars at Montclair Jazz Festival

Gloria Krolak By

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At the 2015 Montclair Jazz Festival, the sun broiled and the stars sparkled over some 6,000 jazz fans, that number announced by emcee Gary Walker, a popular WBGO radio on-air personality. Emmy and Golden Globe winning actor S. Epatha Merkerson, best known for her 17 seasons as Lieutenant Van Buren on NBC's "Law and Order," was back as the festival's Mistress of Ceremonies. The annual one-day event, free to all comers, was held at Nishuane Park and produced by the Jazz House Kids, an organization with humble beginnings that has seen its vision for jazz education grow into a model for underserved youth.

It all started with vocalist Melissa Walker who birthed the movement in 1999 when she created a program called "Let's Build a Jazz House," introducing jazz to youngsters in the Newark school system in a most inventive way. Through the years, many top-flight musicians signed on as teachers and mentors, creating a blend of formal education with traditional "on-the-job" training. Saxophonist Joe Lovano, guitarist Dave Stryker, and pianist-organist Radam Schwartz are a few. Bassist Christian McBride, Artistic Chair and pianist Oscar Perez, Coordinator of Small Ensembles, two of the musicians I most wanted to hear, also consistently share their time, energy and expertise with the youngsters.

The program has grown to include scholarships, master classes, instrumental and vocal school programs, and performances by the Jazz House Big Band throughout the year. Over 100 students completed this summer's annual workshop held at the state-of-the-art Cali School of Music facility at Montclair State University, thanks to the generosity of the Cali family.

Feeling the need for some Vitamin J, my partner-photographer Michael and I drove east from Hunterdon County, arriving in Montclair as the sun was frying eggs on sidewalks. With online directions and good signage we found a parking space at a shuttle stop and rode the big bus to the park.

The program began at noon and featured organist-pianist Radam Schwartz and his group Organized, followed by The Jazz House Faculty Collective, comprised of esteemed jazz musicians who serve as faculty members and mentors. There was plenty of Vitamin D to go around that Saturday. The baking sun drove concert goers under umbrellas, kiosks, trees, blankets, and broad hats. While their bodies absorbed the stuff of strong bones, their souls were nourished by Vitamin J for jazz, J for joy.

Christian McBride, four-time Grammy award-winning bassist, came on soon after we arrived with his ever ready, high-voltage smile. Add the talents of Oscar Perez at the piano, Bruce Williams on tenor sax and Billy Hart on drums, and you had an irrepressible combo. Then José James joined the foursome, a vocalist I confess to not having heard of before—where have I been?—and the stars increased their wattage exponentially.

They had me with "Body and Soul," their first song, once banned because the lyrics were thought too explicit for radio. James sang two Billie Holiday tunes, "Fine and Mellow," with saxman Williams plunging deep into it, and her best known piece, "God Bless the Child." The group stretched out the ending to "Lover, Where Can You Be," like a silky strand of taffy and closed their too-short set with John Coltrane's "Equinox." James wrote his own lyrics, which were unfortunately never approved by the Coltrane family after Alice Coltrane's death, and so the James version remains unreleased. You can listen on YouTube, though, and I strongly recommend it.

Billy Eckstine (both baritones), as soulful as the singing Antonio Carlos Jobim, and as hip as Bobby Darin in their day. The quintet of James, McBride, Perez, Williams and Hart exceeded the minimum daily requirement of Vitamin J many times over. We'll be back next year for our booster shots.

Vendors were plentiful and working hard to keep the crowds fed and hydrated. Reversing the process to get home proved as flawless as getting there. A non-profit, Jazz House Kids is always in need of donations. You can donate or volunteer through their website. Consider it fair exchange for all the free jazz at the Montclair Jazz Festival.

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