No one’s going to mistake Charlotte for New Orleans. For one thing, the Big Easy has open container laws that make it legal to bar hop with a beer in your hand. But for one weekend each spring since 2015, Blumenthal Performing Arts has turned Uptown into a jazz destination.
It happens again from April 29 to May 4. This year’s Charlotte Jazz Festival will be part of a larger, two-week Charlotte SHOUT! festival, featuring a battle between DJs; cooking demos; guest speakers on timely topics and giant, inflatable, white bunnies called “The Intrude Family” by their creator, Parer Studios of Tasmania. (Experience the rabbit invasion at its most glorious at night; they’ll be lit from within.) Charlotte SHOUT!’s tagline is “Ideas + Music + Food + Art.” Much of the music component of the equation comes from Jazz Fest.
As always, Wynton Marsalis, a prominent member of jazz’s first family, will play an outsized role in the festivities.
How important is he to the festival? “He’s the guy who thought it up,” said Tom Gabbard, Blumenthal’s president and CEO. “We wouldn’t have launched it without him. He’s a guidepost for all of it — artistically and through his commitment to community and education.”
Marsalis — son of the pioneering Ellis Marsalis and brother of Branford (sax), Delfeayo (trombone) and Jason (drums) — recalled the feeling of community support the festival had even in its infancy. There was no Jazz Tent that first year. Adding it has increased the number of venues — and the number of jazz lovers who can attend. This year, there will be more than 50 concerts, special events and workshops.
The festival has grown incrementally, Gabbard said, and that’s as he intended. “We haven’t gotten crazy ambitious and grown too fast. I’m proud of the events we offer and especially proud that more than 40 of them this year are free. We’re giving families access to great jazz at no cost.”
Marsalis — a trumpeter, teacher and composer—will perform twice this year, yet his influence will be felt throughout the four-day event. His first performance at 7 p.m. May 1 is as a special guest star with Camille Thurman and the Darrell Green Trio. Thurman’s vocals have been compared to those of Ella Fitzgerald; her virtuosity on the tenor sax has earned her comparisons to Dexter Gordon. Darrell Green has become a master drummer and sought-after sideman.
Gabbard noted a special connection Marsalis has to his May 1 venue, the Jazz Garden Tent at Romare Bearden Park. Charlotte native Bearden, perhaps American’s foremost collage artist, was a Marsalis family friend. He designed the cover of Marsalis’ 1986 album, “J Mood.”
Marsalis, then in his early 20s, didn’t like the artwork — but he couldn’t admit that to a legend. When the young Marsalis tried to give artistic direction to Bearden, in his mid-70s, the artist ignored it. “Don’t bring me some picture you drew,” Marsalis recalled Bearden admonishing him.
According to Marsalis, Bearden told their mutual friend, the literary and jazz critic Albert Murray, “Wynton doesn’t like my album cover. But he will.”
Bearden was right. “I wasn’t sophisticated enough to understand it,” Marsalis said. “I didn’t know the history. But Romare was always trying to teach me. He’d give me books on mythology, Joseph Campbell. I used to visit him often at his studio on Canal Street [in New York].”
What makes a great jazz musician? “Empathy, earthiness, intelligence,” Marsalis said. “And creativity and a willingness to share. But there’s no mold. You can be upright like a parson or totally wild. Jazz has room for all kinds. There are no rules.”
There is a schedule, though — a full one. On May 2, Marsalis will play with the Future of Jazz Orchestra, which he created, at Knight Theater. Marsalis and other established artists — Rodney Whitaker, Wycliffe Gordon and Dan Block — will be joined by 14 rising stars.
Many of those musicians, in their teens and 20s, have developed through Jazz at Lincoln Center’s education programs and now share the stage with their mentors. The up-and-comers and the pros will perform “Ellington Through the Ages: From the 1920s-1970s.” And it will be one of the hottest tickets in town. “Ellington Through the Ages” is opening in New York the next night at Jazz at Lincoln Center. Charlotte audiences can see it first.
On May 3, “Wynton Marsalis’ Spaces,” celebrating music and dance, will feature the Lincoln Center Orchestra performing Marsalis’ original and highly celebrated composition. South Carolina’s Jerry Grimes will be one of the featured dancers. Marsalis said, “He’s phenomenal. I can’t even put him into a category.”
He said the piece contains, “a groove that evokes the spirit of each animal”—from lions to swallows and from monkeys to bees. “‘Spaces’ was … conceived as a series of zoological portraits,” the New York Times wrote after its 2016 premiere. “Those buzzing kazoos were just one example of … Marsalis’ knack for a sort of musical onomatopoeia.”
Kazoos? As part of a jazz band? It works when Marsalis is in charge. He can elevate a toy instrument to unheard of heights.
From Pageland to Broadway (to Charlotte)
Marsalis is far from the only Jazz Fest performer with star power. Broadway and TV star Patina Miller, a native of Pageland, S.C., will debut a new homage to North Carolina native Nina Simone. (“This is as fresh and new as it gets,” Gabbard said.)
Miller originated the role of Deloris Van Cartier in London’s “Sister Act” — which is where Gabbard first took note of her — and later in the Broadway production of it. She won a Best Actress Tony award for her role in the 2013 revival of “Pippin.”
Another unlikely star: The Jazz Garden Tent—a grand, although temporary, structure at Romare Bearden Park that feels more like a jazz club with panoramic views than a tent. Six concerts will be performed in that lush space — three on Friday and three on Saturday — and, Gabbard said, “as close in sequence as possible.”
“In the past,” he said, “we’ve had an hour or more between each concert. Now, the concerts will follow one after the other to make for a full night of jazz. There are three acts in one evening, and guests can enjoy just one or stay for all three.”
New Orleans may have been the birthplace of jazz, but other cities have become jazz destinations. Marsalis cites New York, Chicago, “L.A. on Central Avenue,” Kansas City, Philadelphia and Newark, N.J.
Could Charlotte one day be among them?
Marsalis mentioned his friends, Lonnie and Ocie Davis, New Orleans transplants who founded JazzArts Charlotte (formerly Jazz Arts Initiative). “Ocie studied with my father,” Marsalis said. “Ocie can swing, you know what I’m saying? I love what they represent and love how the community embraces them. There are great students coming out of there.”
Veronica Leahy (the 2016 Loonis McGlohon Young Jazz Artists Competition winner) is one of those students, he said. “Alto sax player. She can play! When you’ve got young talent, it’s a matter of the community supporting that talent. Anything is possible.”
That’s a good way to describe a festival of jazz, that no-rules, no-holds-barred musical genre that takes improv on an extended vacation. From April 29 through May 4, anything is possible. A buttoned-up bankers’ town could feel like Bourbon Street. Almost.
WANT TO GO?
Charlotte Jazz Festival
When: April 29 to May 4
Where: Various locations