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New York City Summer Festival Roundup

It always seems like more dinner than one can eat when the schedules for New York City's summer jazz festivals are announced. This town is a full-time jazz festival all year, and even the most avid fan can't get to every promising set normally scheduled for the clubs and concert halls. We have neither the energy, time nor money, and must chose our fun carefully.

Sure, it is the New Yorker's nature to complain, even about surfeit. On the bright side, there is jazz for everyone. When summer comes there is certainly someone to hear you've never heard, someone you've always wanted to hear again, someone you always like to hear, something you'll pay for, something for free.

The Vision Festival starts the season, in late May. This is the gathering of musical artists (including, besides musicians, dancers, painters and poets) organized by musical artists—namely, Patricia Nicholson, dancer and choreographer who is married to bassist William Parker. The festival is held at the Center at St. Patrick's Old Cathedral, which sounds grand but is a simple community meeting hall that holds about 800 people. The scene is a lot like a high school dance in the gym, taken over by the slackers, nerds and crazies—except that these are some of the most invidividualistic, idealistic and iconoclastic performer-composer-improvisers on earth.

"Vision music or freedom music is not limited by any particular tradition but may utilize any tradition", according to promotional materials. But the festival follows from the 60s secular spiritualism and peace politics of Albert Ayler and John Coltrane, among others, based in the urban African-American perspective, embracing some European friends.

My favorites among the 30 different groups (over four sets a night) include (on May 25) the Sun Ra Arkestra celebrating reeds player Marshall Allen's 80th birthday, and gritty guitarist James "Blood" Ulmer with the driving rhythm section of Jamaladeen Tacuma, bass, and Calvin Weston, drums; (on May 26—the whole night looks good) bassist Mark Dresser, unique windsplayer Ned Rothenberg, and Michiyo Yagi playing koto and bass koto; the trio Equal Interest (with pianist Myra Melford, reeds player Joseph Jarman and violinist Leroy Jenkins), the Henry Grimes trio (he's the first choice bassist who dropped out of sight for 30 years, returning to action after being discovered in a Los Angeles room too small to keep an instrument), and Belgian pianist Fred Van Hove with East German-born Johannes Bauer, trombone; (May 27) scribe-guitarist Greg Tate's Burnt Sugar, and the Amiri/Amina Baraka band Blue Ark; (May 28) tough New Orleans tenor saxophonist Kidd Jordan with his hometown band; (May 29) bassist Reggie Workman's nonet with two drummers and three singers, and master drummer Milford Graves with William Parker and two saxophonists; (May 30) a panel on "The Artist's Role in Waging Peace", percussionist Kahil El'Zabar with baritone saxman Bluiett and violinist Billy Bang, and the reunion, after 30 years, of the Revolutionary Ensemble (violinist Jenkins, bassist Sirone and drummer Jerome Cooper).

On May 31, improvising conductor Butch Morris will sound-sculpt with a 16-piece ensemble, in honor of his late brother, the bassist Wilbur Morris, and the late German bassist Peter Kowald. Also that night, German drummer Gunter "Baby" Sommer performs with bassist Barre Philips and trombonist Connie Bauer, and bassists William Parker, Sirone, Henry Grimes and Alan Silva get together with tenor saxophonist Charles Gayle. Tickets cost $25 each night, or $140 for a seven day pass. The complete schedule is posted at www.visionfestival.org and advance tickets may be ordered from dmg@downtownmusicgallery.com.

Just two weeks later, the 12-day JVC Jazz Festival New York is launched with a publicity party at the Mayor's official home, Gracie Mansion. If the Vision Festival represents the underground, the JVC fest, produced by veteran promoter George Wein, whose autobiography Myself Among Others is one of the jazz books of the year, presents the broadest vision of the jazz mainstream. It takes place mostly in the Danny Kaye Playhouse, Carnegie Hall, and Merkin Concert Hall, but also the Apollo Theatre, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and Symphony Space. The fest has free afternoon performances behind Manhattan's main library in Bryant Park (don't miss the Marsalis Music matinee of guitarist Doug Wamble and alto saxist Miguel Zenon). The Village Vanguard, Birdland, and the Jazz Standard tie their shows to the fest. Ticket prices range from $12 (to see drummer T.S. Monk's Sextet at the Studio Museum) to $35 (for opening night's "Music of Leonard Bernstein and George Gershwin", by pianist Bill Charlap's trio at Kaye) to $85 (for singer k.d. lang with the Brooklyn Philharmonic at Carnegie Hall—if you call that jazz).

There are all-star tribute concerts celebrating the music of Nina Simone (cast including Toni Morrison, Tracy Chapman, Vernon Reid, Lizz Write, Odetta, etc.), Sarah Vaughan (starring Dianne Reeves), Fats Waller, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins and Glenn Miller; the co-billing of eternal avant-gardist Ornette Coleman and diva Abbey Lincoln; the debut of the touring Herbie Hancock-Wayne Shorter-Dave Holland-Brian Blade quartet; Joao Gilberto solo; Roy Haynes' Quartet; John Scofield's trio, and Polish trumpeter Tomasz Stanko. Longtime instrumental draws Phil Woods, Buddy DeFranco, Clark Terry, Louie Bellson and Frank Wess will appear. So will rocker Lou Reed, conguero Pancho Sanchez in a Latin jazz jam session, and party-master George Clinton and Parliament/Funkadelic. Pianist Uri Caine will do different repertoire with different guests almost nightly for a week. Pianist Jason Moran plays a solo recital and there is a Danish Jazz Day. Go to www.festivalproductions.net to drool over the entire schedule.

On July 6, the Lincoln Center Festival, a multi-kulti and pan-arts extravaganza, commences, but for all its splendors, there's not any jazz—or as a friend who works as one of the curators said, "Not much for you, Howard. But there aren't many people like you." How dare she? Why, her husband is like me, writing about jazz and its kin. Closest thing here is a "free adaptation" of Aristophane's comedy The Frogs by Burt Shevelove, Nathan Lane and Stephen Sondheim, or maybe D.J. Spooky's take on D.W. Griffith's bigoted silent film epic The Birth of a Nation, or perhaps Elvis Costello's full-length orchestral work, Il Sogno, performed by the Brooklyn Philharmonic. I kid you not.

Hey—there will also be low-price jitterbug dancing to swing bands in the Lincoln Center plaza. Free world music acts from Africa and the Caribbean at Central Park's Summerstage. The free Charlie Parker Jazz Festival in August in Tompkins Square Park, and free Jazzmobile concerts in view of the Hudson River, at Grant's Tomb.

When we go out of town, it may be to the 50th Anniversary of what promises to be the Newport Festival to top all Newport Festivals with Dave Brubeck, Ornette, Dave Douglas, Herbie Hancock, the Heath Brothers, Jackie McLean, Roswell Rudd, Geri Allen, Ravi Coltrane, Russell Malone, and a few hundred others. Check this out at www.newportjazz50th.com. More about it from me, later. I'll send, at least, a postcard.