The 2004 St. Lucia Jazz Festival

Scott H. Thompson By

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That night I headed back to the Rodney Bay main drag to hear the fierce sounds of the Mingus Dynasty Band. And there--center stage--blowin' his sax is my friend Wayne Escoffrey. Blowin' hard in the rain.
From JFK to a brief stopover in Barbados, then our Air Jamaica jet smoothly lands on the exotic, beautiful West Indies island of St. Lucia. Paradise. Lush green volcanic mountains lunge out from the clear blue Caribbean Sea on one side and the rougher Atlantic Ocean on the other coast. I am a happy man.

The taxi ride up the eastern coast is breathtaking. Past the dark brown cocoa pods hanging from the trees, green mangos, papayas and bananas. Lots of bananas. We drive on the left side of the road—I might add—makes us Americans a bit, well it just takes some getting used to. Vincent, my driver, is polite and an expert as he winds through the rain forest road as we cut over to the other side of the island.

Then into the capital of Castries. Bustling with stands of fresh fish, fruits and Piton beer. On up the coast to Rodney Bay and my spectacular destination, the Rex St. Lucian. Highly recommended. Right on the best beach on the island. What a view, green mountains reaching down to the sea. Yachts lay lazily, anchored in the bay outside my 3rd floor deck. This must be heaven.

I'm here for the fantastic 13th annual St. Lucia Jazz Festival. From May 7-16, 2004, the island was hopping with people from all over the world that have come to experience this great event. BET Jazz is the presenting sponsor and really knows how to throw a party. The incredible people of St. Lucia are gracious hosts. Lots of love here.

As I was flying in, who do I bump into on my plane, but the renowned and respected jazz pianist and historian Dr. Billy Taylor. He is an amazing human being and has close ties with the late Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. It was an honor to see him again. He is scheduled the next night. I'll be there.

Sitting behind me on the flight was Billy Taylor's bassist, Chip Jackson. He's played with a host of greats. We had a nice chat, as both of us spent time living in Connecticut. Small world. We talked about everything from Mahavishnu Orchestra and the Miles' "Jack Johnson" Sessions and Jimi Hendrix to how his bass gets all banged around now with all the security restrictions and opening and closing and examining., etc. It's a delicate instrument. He has a point. Life in the new world.

Anyway, back to the hotel. A nice, first swim in the Caribbean Sea. Oh man, let me stay, please let me stay. Please. (Quit your whimpering, Thompson.) I will continue this begging mantra to myself the entire time I am on the exotic island.

I didn't get this information from a computer printout of demographically researched data and logically deducted conclusions...but...my cab driver—Vincent or was it Ali—told me that jazz is being accepted into the Caribbean community, but the R&B acts really bring in the crowds.

Hence, this year's lineup includes: Ashanti, Babyface, Gerald Levert, Joe and Floetry. The jazz acts include some great, great talent too: Dr. Billy Taylor, James Carter, Maynard Ferguson, Marlena Shaw, Mingus Dynasty Band and Kenny G.

Let me just say right now—James Carter blew me away! Once again, go see James Carter! He brought Coltrane to the Caribbean. He made me a believer. And he was the first concert I saw! Thursday night.

The hot club that the concerts were held at is called Gaiety on Rodney Bay, a comfortable, large concert hall with balcony seating and great views. Beautiful waitresses. Did I mention the women of this island are beautiful? And they outnumber men 10-to-1. (Gulp.)

But on to the show. James Carter comes out meaning business. He's not holding back and he's dressed to kill. Full length suit, sax in hand, determined to lay a smack-down. His song choices include Cab Calloway's "Sunset," Billy Holiday's "Strange Fruit," then into "Lover Man." James Carter swings moving into a latin feel for "Sunset" with a burnin' trumpet solo by Dwight Adams. James is using all his weapons, soprano, tenor, flute with the acoustic bass thumpin' away.

"Thank you for saturating me with you-all's presence," James smiles into the microphone. He honed his chops with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra and many more respected institutions (including the institution known as Sonny Rollins.) Tonight he lights up the flute for "Strange Fruit." He's later squeakin' the tenor like a soprano. "Lover Man" starts off with solo trumpet and builds from there. Very nice set.

Next that night, its the educator Dr. Billy Taylor. Light. Elegant. Historical. Chip Jackson is perfect on bass. And my ol' friend Wynard Harper is swingin' n' smilin' on drums. (I drove down to his house in Jersey City and waited and chatted with his mom for about an hour as he and his brother Phillip were late getting to the interview. Ha. It turned out to be a cover story for Jazz Times. That was back in the day when it was in newspaper format. Old school.)

"Hi Ya'll" was Billy's first song. The next tune he explained goes like this: C-A-G. Then he began to play "It's a Matter of Pride" a Suite for Martin Luther King. The melody was light and funky and reminded me of early Ramsey Lewis... "In Crowd" sound. Made us all smile. "His Name Was Martin" the suite continues. Then Chip and Wynard join in. So sophisticated, soft and understated. Beautiful music. Chip took an impressive solo as a lyrical and exciting bassist. Then Wynard turned the drum set into an arsenal of weapons that stole the show. I looked around at the mixed people in the audience—all smiling and moving—and realized the one thing we all as humans have in common—is rhythm. The drum. Primal.

Up early Friday for my usual cup of double espresso, they call it coffee. Jump in the cool Caribbean Sea. Sit on my deck and snack on melon, papaya, mango, banana, cheese, bread. Somebody pinch me.

Tonight it was back to the same jammin' club, Gaiety on Rodney Bay for Marlena Shaw and Maynard Ferguson. By the way, during the set changes for these shows, I have the opportunity to step outside and enjoy a fine Cuban Cohiba cigar. So nice to have them available. Again, I'm smiling.

Marlena Shaw is lookin' good. She was Count Basie's singer back in the day and she still packs a punch. A beautiful woman and wonderful entertainer. I was totally impressed, having never seen her before. She can really work an audience. Counting it off, "ah-one ah-two ah-you know what to do...." She shared a nice story about her old friend guitarist Freddie Green and "Until I Met You"/"April In Paris." Then it was "Round Midnight" where Marlena sways "If you don't want my peaches, don't shake my tree...let somebody else make jelly of me." Well, I guess that says it all.

Maynard Ferguson came out breathing fire as expected. His high hip chops are legendary in his fifth decade as a bandleader. He's still got it too. Man, what a swingin' band of kids. And I mean kids. Maynard is known for finding young talent and teaching them the ropes. These guys swing. Everyone of 'em. Maynard was countin' 'em off and swing baby swing! The alto player looked like a high school chemistry student but blew that sax with power! "It Don't Mean A Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing" had everyone taking solos. Maynard slaps five to each soloist as they finish their stretch. It's really a wonderful thing to see the baton being passed before your eyes.

Maynard kiddingly asks the pianist, "Have you been drinkin'?," since he just turned 18. Here's a hint: there's alot of rum on the island, mon. But the piano man is blazin' hot. The crowd ooh-ed as they began a version of "The Girl From Ipanema." The audience is truly transfixed to see these great jazz performers do their thing. It reminds me that always being in New York City for music...I take it for granted. I'll try not to do that.

The Maynard gang went into a medley of songs: "MacArthur Park," "Don't Let The Sun Go Down On Me," "Rocky Theme," "Chameleon," "Hey Jude..."a little somethin' for everyone. The trumpet players took turns trying to match Maynard's blasts. A good time was had by all. The power from this brass machine gave me goose bumps, as I'm sure it blew a few of the locals away too. Lots of Brits here.

Next that night, its off to see Murder Inc.'s princess of Hip Hop and R&B. Ashanti. I don't get out to many of these. So I was packin.' Two Cohibas. A packed outdoor venue at beautiful Pigeon Island. I'm East Coast. Does that make me Murder Inc.? or Death Row? Hmmmm.

Saturday morning I swam in the clear blue water and enjoyed a fine breakfast on the beach, overlooking the bay. Made friends with the lovely Marcia from London, who's birthday it was—May 15th. Happy birthday! Small 2-inch birds sing and nibble at the crumbs. A skinny black cat sways by missing half of one of his ears. (Reminds me of my ol' friend cat, Skinny McFinney.)

This island is beautiful beyond words. And I mean that. You have to come here to see for yourself. The natural beauty is mind-blowing. The people are beautiful, physically and spiritually it seems. But the love is so great, the family spirit so strong. The laughter so real. I feel so at peace here. There is caring and compassion.

I look over the menu at the excellent local Lime Restaurant: "green fig and herring" (that's really unripe bananas cooked like vegetables and cod fish that's dried—salt fish), hmmmmm, "cow heel soup," hmmmm. "curried goat," o.k. I've had that in Aruba. It's good. And man did I eat lots of Jerk Chicken at the Jerk Pit. Hi to my friends—Shervor Mathew and the incredibly beautiful Debra Hypolyte—at the Liquor & Tobacco Co. Ltd. for supplying me with those great Cuban cigars. I'll be back.

Today-Saturday, it's back to the astonishing Pigeon Island. At night, you don't notice it, but when I took the shuttle bus back this morning, I was blown away. Huge volcanic rock structures lurching out of the sea. Wow.

Stopped by the press tent to say hi to the press folk. Nice to see jazz writer Willard Jenkins there—who I've read for years and finally got to meet. Also Stephanie Brown from DL Media and Erika Vives from the Nancy J. Friedman PR firm that coordinated the whole press thing. I had the opportunity to hang out with the Jazz Music Director for XM Satellite Radio, Jackson Brady, and his wonderful wife, Susan. And a special hello to my new photographer friend from Barbados, Rachelle Gray.

I took a stroll down along the shore. There was a beautiful young woman in flowing bright orange and yellow silk robes posing playfully for a photographer. She smiled and waved and I thought it would be fun to get a shot with her to take home. But—nah—she was busy working. (Next day I pick up the local newspaper...she was former Miss Universe...from Trinidad...Wendy Fitzwilliam. Duh.)

This burnin' sunny day on Pigeon Island had some equally burnin' salsa from a band called "Charanga Habanera." Later that day, highlight performers included: Blue Mango, Kenny G. and Gerald Levert.

(Let me say that there was incredible local talent, too numerous to mention in this article. But please go to the website for the complete lineup and information of these wonderfully talented St. Lucian musicians. Support St. Lucian musicians!) The next day the scheduled lineup: Floetry, Yellow Jackets and Babyface.

But it was Saturday night and there was a huge Carnival festival feast back at the nightclub. So cabbie, please take me to Gaiety on Rodney Bay. They had the most beautiful, exotic costumes and spectacular food spread I've ever seen. It was really done well. Hats off to the St. Lucia Tourism Board for really throwing a great bash and having such a wonderful St. Lucia Jazz Festival. They really are a class act.

At this time I want to take a moment to pay respect to Desmond Skeete, the St. Lucia Tourism Board Chariman and driving force behind the St. Lucia Jazz Festival, who passed away on April 29th just a week before this year's event. He is truly loved and respected by his people. This year's St. Lucia Jazz Festival was dedicated to Desmond Skeete.

That night I headed back to the Rodney Bay main drag to hear the fierce sounds of the Mingus Dynasty Band. And there—center stage—blowin' his sax is my friend Wayne Escoffrey. Blowin' hard in the rain.

I awake Sunday as a cool Caribbean drizzle wets down the tropical surroundings. A passing local smiled and said "The farmers are happy today." I sit on my balcony at the Rex St. Lucian sipping strong coffee. Just looking out at the green lush mountains. The quiet yachts slipping silently into the bay. Imagining how a pirate ship could easily sneak up on another unsuspecting vessel in a heavy fog. But—there I go again—day dreaming.

A beautiful young lady in a non-existent bikini walks past me on the beach, smiles, and slowly eases into the blue Caribbean Sea and strokes out a few yards. And keeps swimming and swimming and swimming...out to a yacht to climb aboard and lay out in the sun. I'm moving here.

Back to my room. More coffee. Pack my bags. Call a cab. It's Sampson. My favorite cabbie on the island. Call for Sampson when you get to the island: 758-450-0516. Sampson is a wealth of information. Proud of his culture. His island. His people. His history. St. Lucia changed hands 14 times. English and French laid claim.

The earliest settlers were Amerindians as early as 200 A.D. Nearly 800 years later the warlike Caribs came and took over. It's not known when the first European discovery of St. Lucia occurred, but the island is found on a map of Spanish explorer Juan de la Cosa made in 1500. A European pirate named "Wooden Leg" aka Francois Le Clerc, used Pigeon Island to attack passing Spanish ships. And while the Spanish could never really colonize the island, they have credit for giving her the name St. Lucia.

It was back and forth between the English and the French to control St. Lucia. In 1814, St. Lucia finally came under English rule. St. Lucia became an independent nation in 1979 and celebrates 25 years of Independence in 2004.

The language is called Creole Patois. Its a mix of French, English and African. Kote Pwevit-la? (Where's the bathroom?)

Sampson continues his story, pointing out the Rain Forest surprises, waterfalls, the fruit trees, mango, papaya, banana, cocoa. There's even a live volcano. I ask his birthday: July 15. "No way! That's my birthday!" I scream. We laugh and bang fists and laugh some more. Small world, eh?

I'll be back for the beauty, the peace and the music.

This article/experience is dedicated to my ol' black cat companion for 21 years, Skinny McFinney.

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