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.)


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