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Festive Times

I wear my festival allegiances on my sleeve... usually short sleeve. Catch me on a weekend and you're likely to find me wearing a T-shirt from one of my three favorite hometown festivals—the Art Tatum Heritage Jazz Festival in Toledo, Ohio, the Black Swamp Arts Festival in Bowling Green, Ohio and Edgefest in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

To me these festivals are not only opportunities to see a number of artists in a short period of time, but also a celebration of music-loving communities. And in the case of these three festivals they have deep roots within their communities. These three events not only offer very different rosters of artists, but they also attract different subsets of the listening public.

The first event is the Art Tatum Jazz Heritage Festival, a fine event with a great name. The festival traces its roots back for more than a decade, but it wasn't until 2000 that the Toledo Jazz Society found the right venue, a park across the Maumee River from downtown Toledo. At the same time the society initiated the new name, linking the festival with Toledo's past by honoring its most famous native son.

Now in its fifth year, the festival is presented over two days—Saturday, June 19 and Sunday, June 20. The festival provides a strong mix of national headliners while showcasing many of the fine musicians from the local and regional scene. That gives the festival its down-home atmosphere. The crowd is a wonderful mix of ages and races and, especially as events move toward suppertime and the smell of barbecue wafts through the air, the festival becomes a hip block party. These are listeners with a variety of tastes from straight-ahead bop to smooth jazz. A little bit of a backbeat and gospel phrasing goes a long way with this crowd, but they have an appreciation for fine straight-ahead jazz as well. It's a place older kids can wander about with impunity as if among a multicolored cast of aunts and uncles. Most kids are not likely to sit intent on the music; but wandering with the muse floating around them, unconsciously absorbing both the music and the love of it, they start to develop an appreciation.

This year the festival has landed a major sponsor, DaimlerChrysler—the automaker manufactures its Jeep Liberty and Wrangler lines in Toledo. Thankfully the name remains unsullied by corporate boosterism. The DaimlerChrysler officials apparently appreciated the classy moniker.

The two headliners are definitely from the pop jazz domain. Pieces of a Dream closes Saturday's show while Nancy Wilson and Ramsey Lewis close Sunday's show. The latter act is much in keeping with certain Tatum fest traditions. The first festival featured Jon Hendricks, who had coincidentally just returned to live in his hometown and teach at the University of Toledo. He's been a presence since then. The festival has featured some of his jazz vocal protégés, including last year both Ben Sidran and Kurt Elling. The climax of the 2003 festival was a wild vocal jam involving Hendricks, Elling and Hendricks' daughter Michelle.

The festival has also featured some fine pianists, including homegrown talent such as Larry Fuller with Ray Brown's trio, and Stanley Cowell. Another local musician who has gone national, guitarist Dan Faehnle, plays Sunday.

Not all talent leaves town though. Claude Black is a regional treasure and as part of the house band for Murphy's Place, the premier jazz club in Toledo, he's a regular at the festival. This year the Murphys, led by bassist Clifford Murphy, will host saxophonist David "Fathead" Newman. Newman makes regular stops at the Toledo club, taking advantage of the solid house trio for support. Though most known for his soulful solos backing Ray Charles, he really favors straight down the middle bop and ballads. Also, moving from the Murphy's bandstand to the festival stage is the Winard Harper Sextet, a band that's also made Murphy's Place a regular stop. Both Harper and Newman play Sunday.

As usual on Saturday, The Toledo Jazz Orchestra will set up the evening headliners with a set of tight, driving contemporary big band jazz. The lineup tends to vary depending on who's available. Saxophonist Gunnar Mossblad, music director for Dave Liebman's big band, has been a member for two years since joining Hendricks at the University of Toledo. Later, Latin jazz from Humberto Ramirez will heat up the stage for Pieces of a Dream.

The festival proves to be youth-friendly not only in its atmosphere, but also in showcasing young talent. Jazz prodigy saxophonist Alex Han plays Saturday afternoon at suppertime, and the jazz ensemble from the Toledo School for the Arts plays Sunday afternoon.

After the notes from the Toledo fest fade away, I have to wait until the weekend after Labor Day for the next festival fix. The Black Swamp Arts Festival, September 10 through 12, is not a jazz festival. Since its origin 12 years ago, the music offerings at the festival—it also includes a well-respected two-day art fair on Main Street—present what broadly could be called roots music. It's an eclectic mix of whatever organizers can line up. Independent coffee maven Kelly Wicks, who has handled booking the last 11 years, seeks out bands with their own sound, and avoids cover bands and one-hit has-beens. Because beverage sales fund the music and the festival is free, organizers don't need to be concerned with name recognition. Rather they seek bands with sounds that will connect with local listeners. The festival has succeeded so well, people come regardless of whether they know the names of the headliners. That's great for the musicians because it exposes them to new listeners. And when the bands have their own fan base that will come for the free music, it only adds to the party atmosphere.

While pure jazz acts are rare—Ernie Krivda from Cleveland was the headliner in the second year, playing a set with singer Paula Owens that fell largely on inattentive ears—acts with blues and jazz influence are the norm. Leon Redbone was the festival's first headliner and has appeared a couple times since.

A local jazz musician friend lamented the lack of jazz content, but to me it's a matter of finding jazz acts that fit the bill for the scene. The audience is a broad general music audience, people who maybe have a dozen or so jazz records in their collection. They're not the kind who will go for long sophisticated bebop and beyond soloing. But put a groove to it, and it'll work. Just as an example, John Scofield with Dave Holland, Joe Lovano and Al Foster would get an uncertain response, but his Uberjam band, which has played a couple successful shows at a local roadhouse, would connect. Conversely, one of the hits of last year's festival was the reggae band John Brown's Body, which features a three-horn section that adds a jazz seasoning to the Jamaican groove.

The festival has also been a good venue for the blues, drawing on the Chicago scene for acts including Magic Slim and Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials. This year Otis Taylor is one of the early bookings, tentatively set for Saturday night's show. Others tentatively slated for the bill are the Gamble Brothers Band and Southern Culture on the Skids. That range of blues, soul, both with a touch of jazz, and quirky southern-fried humor, pretty much encapsulates the range of the festival. All that's missing is a touch of reggae or Cajun music.

The festival draws a cross-generational crowd. My kids love it because they get to hang out just on the periphery of adult supervision. My daughter even said that Black Swamp weekend is her favorite time of year, right up there with Christmas. But retired faculty members from the university are there as well. It's not unusual to see tables of three-generations together. I like to say that it's "the county fair for the rest of us". And it's a crowd ripe for the right kind of jazz.

The last blast for me comes October 14-16 this year, up the road a piece in Ann Arbor, Michigan, at Edgefest. This is hardcore jazz territory. The festival is held in the old market section, well away from the campus of the University of Michigan. The venues are small with performances centered on the Kerrytown Concert House. The festival typically runs from Thursday night through early Sunday morning. Aside from workshops during the day Saturday, the concerts are at night; usually a show at Kerrytown will be followed by a performance at the Firefly Club. The festival generally presents larger ensembles on Saturday night. It had used a furniture store—first arrivals get the deadly comfortable couches up front—deadly especially for those of us who have been up late for the past two nights. But that store has closed, so last year a former Orthodox church was used.

The concert house, which presents new music and jazz performances throughout the year, is a cozy space in a renovated home. The space itself is an L with the bandstand in the angle. The acoustics are superior. This really offers a chance to savor the nuance of a musician's sound.

Obviously it's too early for artists to be posted, but previous years are enough to whet the serious listener's appetite. Last year featured Trio 3 with Reggie Workman, Andrew Cyrille and Oliver Lake, Trevor Watts, Available Jelly, Guy Klucevsek and Phillip Johnston and the Mat Maneri Quartet among others. Highlights from previous years include Willem Breuker Kollektief, Eight Bold Souls, Ken Vandermark, both as a duo with Hamid Drake and with his quintet on the same bill, and William Parker with Matthew Shipp and Gerald Cleaver.

As is evident, this is a rare chance to hear European improvisers. Also, the festival has long established a link with Montreal's "musique actuelle" scene.

The fan base is largely what you'd expect—aging bohemians. And though I'm an infrequent visitor to Ann Arbor I feel right at home. I often find myself sharing a table at a club, and striking the acquaintance of a fellow jazz traveler. All the venues are an easy stroll apart. That adds to the leisurely, civilized pace of the event. The artists seem to enjoy it as well. In 2003, both Reggie Workman and Joe Fonda applauded producer Dave Lynch for the quality and good vibes of the event.

All I can do is echo the two bassists' accolades and wear my T-shirt proudly.