When Al Sikes, founder of the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival, first proposed the idea of showcasing big-name jazz in a small town, there was a pause of at least 30 seconds over the phone—as if to say, in silence, “Are you kidding me?”
“I didn’t know this guy from Adam, but I could tell he was an out-and-out jazz lover,” Monty Alexander recalls. “He told me, ‘Man, I grew up with Dave Brubeck in the ’50s.’ He had this idea of bringing jazz to a cozy little town that reminds me of that charming village in the movie ‘Back to the Future.’ ”
“We needed to show proof of concept,” says Sikes. “If you asked people who they’d like to see in a jazz concert, they’d probably mention Louis Armstrong or Ella Fitzgerald”—both now deceased. “But would they come hear someone not quite as famous? I had seen Monty Alexander play when I was living in New York, and when someone mentioned his name as a guy who could help bring this about, I gave him a call. He was a little hesitant, but finally said, ‘Let’s take it one year at a time.’ ”
Now, 10 years later, what started as a one-off concert by Alexander and his band has become Easton’s Labor Day weekend tradition.
The idea of bringing jazz stars to a 400-seat theater—the Avalon’s seating capacity—was not such a stretch. Even the greatest names of the genre sometimes play small nightclub venues. But these are most often boozy big-city hideaways. Would Easton be hip enough to support jazz, even just for a holiday weekend?
“I never would’ve guessed that we’d be doing this after 10 years,” says Alexander, now 75. “It’s a joy each time we come here—so rich in spirit. You can feel the sense of anticipation in the audience. They appreciate that jazz is a better representation of America than Coca-Cola.
“I call it appreci-love,” he says, inventing a new word
This from a native of Kingston, Jamaica, who’s made New York his home base for an international career. Just before his 10th anniversary concert at the Avalon, Alexander will play Royal Albert Hall in London.
“But Easton’s where I’ll be every Labor Day weekend,” he says.
Of course, since that first concert, Alexander and his band are no longer alone in jazzing up the town.
Friday night’s first act of the festival brings Allan Harris back for a centennial salute to Nat King Cole. Originally a jazz pianist of great renown, “the King’s” deep and seductively smoky voice made him a 1950s radio superstar and the first African-American artist to host a network TV variety show. To this day, for me, no Dec. 25th is complete without hearing his recording of “A Christmas Song.” Maybe Labor Day is too early for that, but I hope not.
Harris is just one of the headline artists for this 10th anniversary celebration who have played the festival previously. “We wanted to bring back some of our favorites from the last 10 years,” Sikes says. That includes Baltimore native Cyrus Chestnut for the closing Sunday matinee concert. The Peabody Institute and Berklee School of Music alumni deploys his classical, gospel and professorial background into a broad-based survey of jazz’s American roots.
In between, festival fans will be treated to an encore performance by Matthew Whitaker, an astonishingly talented wunderkind who made his debut last year in the festival’s showcase for young artists. Blind at birth, Whitaker, 18, plays the piano and a B3 organ simultaneously, swiveling seamlessly between the two. “As gifted as they come,” says Alexander. Whitaker plays Saturday afternoon.
This year’s featured young artists are Randy Napoleon and Dan Wilson in a free 11 a.m. “Guitars Without Compromise” concert. They’ll also play both Sunday brunch seatings across the street at the Tidewater Inn, accompanied by bassist Tommy Cecil, a Chestnut sideman, and drummer/vibraphonist Chuck Redd, part of Monty Alexander’s ensemble. Bass player J.J. Shakur is another “joyful presence” in his band as Alexander puts it. Also featured with Chestnut is soaring jazz vocalist Christie Deshiell, who appears regularly with him at Blues Alley in Washington.
You can expect Alexander, pianist and composer who also plays the keyboard reed instrument known as the melodica, to perform selections from the past and present—including some of his reggae-influenced originals. Don’t be surprised if he also draws on the Sinatra songbook. Alexander was once the house pianist at Jilly’s, a Manhattan nightclub where Frank Sinatra frequently sang.
It should be a very good year, this 10th for the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival.
Steve Parks is a retired journalist, arts critic and editor now living in Easton.
Jazz on the Chesapeake Presents the 10th Annual Monty Alexander Jazz Festival
Allan Harris Centennial Tribute to Nat King Cole, 8 p.m., Friday, Aug. 30
Free Community Concert: Randy Napoleon and Dan Wilson, 11 a.m. Saturday, Aug. 31
Matthew Whitaker: Exciting Debut, Eagerly Awaited Return, 2 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31
Monty Alexander Celebrates 10th Anniversary, 8 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 31
Jazz Brunch: Napoleon and Wilson with Chuck Redd and Tommy Cecil, 10:30 and 11:30 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 1
Cyrus Chestnut: Where Gospel Meets Jazz, 2 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 1
All concerts at Avalon Theatre except brunch seatings at Hunter’s Tavern, Tidewater Inn
Tickets: $25-$50 (except free Saturday morning concert), $90-$165 for festival pass; 410-819-0380, jazzonthechesapeake.com, 410-822-4034 for brunch reservations