15th Annual DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival 2003

Festival Report 2003
15th Annual DuPont Clifford Brown
Jazz Festival – June 15-22, 2003
by Eugene Holley, Jr.

Herbie hancock at the 15th Annual DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Festival
Hancock Photo by Billy Martin – Pictrman@aol.com

The growth of a jazz festival is no different than the growth of a musician. Like the musician, the festival arrives on the scene, explores a wide variety of styles and presentational forms. On its quest to find its own voice, it makes mistakes, and improvises on them. Then one day, the festival delivers a performance that heralds its arrival, and announces to the world that it has something to say.

At a time when the death of jazz is once again foretold, the 15th Annual DuPont Clifford Brown Jazz Fest in Wilmington, Delaware was a welcome, Mark Twain-ish rebuttal of the art form’s supposed demise. For one week, a total of 50,000 jazz lovers, sometimes through rainstorms, listened to a well-programmed and well-paced presentation of jazz styles, from the Crescent City grooves of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band to the Othello Molineaux’s Trinidadian steel drums with the Afro-Rican Ensemble, all of which were presented for free, save for $10 dollar charge to see Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center.

But before I talk about the festival, let me talk about the city in which it was held. Of course, the festival is named for the great trumpet god and native son, Clifford Brown, who was killed in a turnpike accident at the age of 25 in 1956. Aside from Brown, many assume that’s it when it comes to jazz in Wilmington, just like many assume that there’s nothing to Delaware because they can pass through it in 15-20 minutes on I-95. But a closer look at this city of about 73,000 — a major stop on the Underground Railroad — would reveal something else. Beyond Brown, the city can proudly boast of a small, but nonetheless impressive list of important jazz artists, including Duke Ellington vocalist Betty Roche, vibraphonist Lem Winchester, drummer Wilby Fletcher, saxophonist Ernie Watts and recently, avant-garde pianist Matthew Shipp. Billy Eckstine’s pioneering bebop big band with Sarah Vaughan and Dizzy Gillespie premiered in Wilmington in 1943. Lionel Hampton gave a benefit concert for St. Joseph’s Church in the ’40s, and let’s not forget the 1956 Blue Note recording, The Incredible Jimmy Smith at Club Baby Grand. I point those facts out because for this writer, who grew just two blocks from Rodney Square, the park located in the center of downtown Wilmington, named for the great American patriot, Cesar Rodney, which housed the main stage, the festival puts a much-needed positive spotlight on a city, that has not also lived up to its potential as a strategically-located cultural and historical enclave midway between New York and Washington, D.C.

The Festival kicked off on Sunday with selections from Duke Ellington’s Sacred Concerts at the Episcopal Church of Saints Andrew and Matthew, just a few blocks from Rodney Square by a local 15-piece big band and choir, under the excellent leadership of David Christopher Price. This music, which contains, spoken word, ballet and tap dancers, was written by Elllington in the late ’60s toward the end of his life. It represented the sum total of his comprehensive, compositional genius, encompassed all of the sacred and secular strains of American music, and is extremely difficult to play. But Price and company did the material justice.. It was amazing how singers like alto Chantal Jackson, Valerie Clayton and Charlotte Paulson, with her stirring, spiritual recital of “Come Sunday,” echoed the Black, Brown and Beige voices, of Ivie Anderson, Alice Babs and Mahalia Jackson. Instrumentally, pianist George Genna’s dark Ducal piano lines swung the mid-tempo trio selection, “The Shepherd.” They all captured the essence of Ellingtonia, as evidenced by the overflow audience, which danced with the youthful swing dancers down the aisles, choreographed by Ellington’s godly grooves.

At Rodney Square, the inventions and dimensions of jazz were in full effect. Electric violinist Michael Ward brought back the spirit of Noel Pointer with his quiet storm/smooth jazz renditions of Stevie Wonder’s “Knock’s Me off My Feet” and Ronnie Laws “Always There.” Lalah Hathaway, made a surprise, but welcome appearance with her similarly syncopated sounds, which included her radio-friendly favorites “One Day I’ll Fly Away,” “Baby Don’t Cry,” and a crowd-pleasing rendition of “Back Together Again,” made famous by her father, Donny Hathaway and Robert Flack, and co-performed by singer, Rahsaan Paterson.

On the other end of the musical spectrum, alto saxophonist Greg Osby, who lives in the Delaware Water Gap area, delivered his arresting and angular versions of Fats Waller’s “Jitterbug Waltz” and Andrew Hill’s quirky tune, “Ashes” The dark-suited Osby, sporting a tan, upturned hat, filled the square with his piercing, Eric Dolphy-derived saxtones, and his sly, and inventively melodic improvisations beautifully supported by his quicksilver quartet that included the young, powerhouse drummer, Eric McPherson. The young Japanese pianist keyboardist Hiromi at times took the music further “out” than Osby did on her set, which featured selection from her Ahmad Jamal-produced Telarc debut CD. sounding like an unformed blend of ’70s Chick Corea and ’30s James P. Johnson, the keyboardist displayed total command of her instrument, which time and maturity will grow into something more cohesive.

Latin tinges from the Caribbean and South American were well represented. Philadelphia’s Kenny Barron provided the zesty sonic seasonings of Afro-Brazilian grooves, courtesy of his Canta Brasil band: percussionist Guilhermo Franco, drummer Duduka de Fonesca, flutist Anne Drummond and bassist Nelson Matta. This Rio-American outfit took the best of the northern and southern hemisphere, combining American jazz swing with the Brazilian samba, baiao and bossa nova rhythms. Barron’s fluid, Hank Jones-inspired piano lines floated above New World beats on the processional pulsations of “Belem,” the lilting Luiz Bonfa/Black Orpheus selection, “Manha De Carnaval” and the festive “Donia Maria,” highlighted by Franco’s Afro-anthemic percussion solo on the pandeiro hand drum. The multi-talented, Cuban-born, Florida-based trumpeter Arturo Sandoval literally blew the crowd away with his spirited Cubop set. He opened with a heartfelt rendering of Benny Golson’s Clifford Brown ballad trbute, “I Remember Clifford,” with the pithy poignancy “Brownie” was known for. But his swing-at-the-speed-of-sound workout on the bop classic “Hot House” showed his debt to Dizzy Gillespie. It wasn’t enough that Sandoval is one of the top trumpet players on the planet. He also played piano and timbales on an Afro-6/8 number and a clave-coded tune. for the sendoff, Sandoval traded some formidable fours on Clifford Brown’s “Sandu,” with homeboy Winston Byrd, who more than held his own.

Since this fest is named after a trumpeter, it’s a no-brainer that that instrument is featured, hence the ground shaking Trumpet Legends at 65: David Weiss, Roy Hargrove, Terrell Stafford and Philadelphian Randy Brecker. Fueled by a killer rhythm section featuring bassist Dwane Burno, pianist and the outstanding drummer, Pete La Roca Sims, this fearless foursome took no prisoners in this hard-bop set, which featured the music of Freddie Hubbard’s “Birdlike,” “The Core,” and “Lament for Booker” Lee Morgan’s “Twice Around,” and Booker Little’s. “Calling Softly.” The four hornsmen’s chops were similar in their bravura trumpet styles — But the dreadlocked, white-clad Hargrove stole the show with his lovely flugelhorn solo, while Weiss, a founding member of the New Jazz Composers Octet, and one of the best, but often overlooked trumpeters in the Big Apple, did an outstanding job of setting the pace for this group.

The splendid Winterthur Gardens, a sprawling country estate own by the DuPont Family, located six miles northwest of Rodney Square in the suburbs, hosted the headliner, Jazz at Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis. It was the first time the that festival was presented there, and, except the for the unfortunate fact that the band played on a bandstand at least 40 feet from the audience ( thankfully, the band was seen on a jumbotron video screen), it was a rousing success. Marsalis and his well-oiled big band, highlighted by the outstanding musicianship of drummer Herlin Riley, saxophonists Ted Nash and Victor Goines, extended, elaborated and refined several songs from the jazz canon. Thelonious Monk’s “Oska T” sounded like one of Hall Overton’s famous arrangements, capped by a robust solo from baritone saxophonist Joe Temperely. Nash’s spicy, flamenco-flavored number recalled Charles Mingus’s “Tijuana Moods” was contrasted by the Dukish “Back to Basics,” a Marsalis selection from his Pulitzer Prize-winning, Blood on the Fields oratorio, which was signatured by the leader’s laughing plunger mute. Riley’s polyrhythmic pulsations brought an Afro-Caribbean flavor to an Art Blakey piece and Marsalis concluded with “Big Fat,” a New Orleans second line ditty.

Marsalis may have been the headliner, but back at Rodney Square, Herbie Hancock was the headline. Performing with the Delaware Symphony Orchestra, under the direction of arranger/conductor, Robert Sadin, who worked with Hancock on the 1998 Verve release Gershwin’s World, and most recently on Wayne Shorter’s Alegria. Hancock explored of Gershwin’s classical and jazz influences, and revisited some of own influences and compositions. At home with jazz, fusion, hip-hop, rock and world music, Hancock started his career as a classical pianist who performed with the Chicago Symphony as a kid. Like John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, Hancock’s balance of African-American blues and jazz improvisations with European classical structures, was simply ingenious and organic sounding and he combined the best of both worlds. With bassist Scott Colley and Richie Barshay, a teenaged drummer from Connecticut, who is the reincarnation of Tony Williams when he joined Miles Davis’s band in the ’60s. After Sadin conducted the orchestra through a contrapuntal overture by Bach with Gil Evans-like conducting, Hancock’s powerful and ultra-rhythmic pianisms peppered the West African-cadenced take on Gershwin’s “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” and a lovely Ravelian reading of “lullaby.” Duke Ellington’s “Cottontail,” swung with the mid-60s, post-bop rhythmic interplay Hancock created back in the day with Williams and Ron Carter. The most incredible aural alchemy occurred on the spectral reworking of Gershwin’s “Prelude in C Sharp Minor.” Here, the composition was rendered with a foreboding, mid-tempo Afro-Eurasian tinged mallet drums, anchoring the singing string as if they were wailing in the blues, topped by Hancock’s soulful and sophisticated solo. The orchestral remake of Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” evovled the tune’s harmonic palette to Stravinskian heights. Hancock’s “Maiden Voyage” and an plaintive solo piano encore of “Dolphin Dance,” showed how intertwined jazz and classical music really are.

The festival also featured free showings of jazz-themed movies and documentaries like “A Great Day in Harlem” and “Calle 54.” Not even the rain could dampen the jazz spirit. When the raindrops came down on the soul-jazz group, Masters of Groove, featuring the Elkton, Maryland native and super drummer Bernard “Pretty” Purdie, the few brave souls who endured the deluge were rewarded by coming up to the covered stage for a more intimate performance.

Kudos go to Mayor James M. Baker, a true student of the music, who donated his record collection to the local library, and to Tina Betz, Director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. They have delivered a world-class jazz festival, and elevated this city’s profile as a beacon for cultural tourism.