Anybody who’s met me knows that I have a bit of an affection, affliction, or just plain addiction to jazz. So it only makes sense that when I finally wrangle myself a vacation it includes some sort of music. This particular grand adventure may have seemed sudden to some, but was actually years in the making. For now, let’s say it started when my roommate in Tryon got a call from an old Squirrel Nut Zippers band mate asking for help with a Dixieland gig. That first gig was so much fun they sought out a weekly venue and found a home at Thibodeaux’s in Asheville. Now, five years later after solidifying the band line up Firecracker Jazz Band has appeared here in Tryon at Rogers Park in addition to a wide variety of weddings and venues around western North Carolina and as far north as Rhode Island. This year they finally earned their ticket west, to not just another smoky bar, but to two of the largest festivals on the west coast for Traditional and Dixieland jazz. I had to at least catch one of the festivals and see how they matched up to the “big shots” of the jazz business. I chose the bigger one.
Knowing I was biased about their abilities, I brought along an old friend who had never heard them, but was well versed in the genre and excited about the music at the festival. From the first gig she was amazed at their energy and raw talent. Throughout the weekend we saw many of the “big shots” of the style, yet she still wanted to catch as many of their shows as possible.
While I was there to support my friends, it was also a chance to hear and meet and talk with vocalists and reed players who are virtuosos in traditional jazz.
One of the highlights was meeting soprano sax player George Probert. The last surviving member of Firehouse Five (plus two) and former musical director for Disney, Mr. Probert was responsible for helping to revive and educate a new generation in a form that might have otherwise faded from public view in the fifties with the advent of rock and roll.
The most memorable moments of expanding my understanding came hearing the technical brilliance of vocalist Becky Kilgore with her “favorite piano player” John Sheridan (formerly of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band) in a cabaret duo setting. She chose Irving Berlin as her focus and brought to life not just the popular favorites like “Cheek to Cheek,” but also dusted off some hidden gems like “The Best Thing for You is Me.” It was like a dream listening to a vocalist and pianist so skilled at their craft and in tune with each other musically.
Other notable mentions from the festival include the sultry Vivian Lee, the elegant and refined Brady McKay with Parlor Jam, the lively Night Blooming Jazzmen with showman Bob Draga, and the high energy performance of Cornet Chop Suey. The young blonde bombshell Bria Skonberg stole many hearts with her exquisite trumpet and vocals not only with her own band Mighty Aphrodite, but also sitting in with various bands throughout the festival. All of these shows were the “complete package” for their style and technically brilliant. There were also several “All Star” jams that gave a taste of what the top players of the festival could do when thrown together on stage for an hour. In one such performance, John Sheridan’s brilliance as a pianist was brought to light when the band cleared the stage for him to play Bolcolm’s Graceful Ghost Rag.
As for my friends, they not only drew the crowds to their shows as the word flew around the festival about this new band, but connected with other musicians like saxophonist Kelland Thomas of Tuscon’s Original Wildcat Jazz Band and pianist Paul Reid of Cornet Chop Suey who sat in on a couple their shows.
As Reese Gray shared the bench with Paul Reid one morning with a broad smile on his face he exclaimed into the mic “I didn’t know class started so early!” At the other end of the day Reese, his drumming brother Mike, and banjo player Jason Krekel of Firecracker were invited to sit in with Mighty Aphrodite at the end of their last set and brought the crowd to their feet with the raw excitement of so many talent young players on stage. They will take that energy with them on tour this summer and are sure to bring a power packed show when they return to Rogers Park in August for the Summer Tracks series.
By sheer dumb luck I befriended one of the guest stars Allan Vaché whose skill on the clarinet allows him the flexibility to play with the smooth beauty of Benny Goodman and Artie Shaw while still managing to get “down and dirty” like Johnny Dodds on the hot jazz numbers. Born into a family of musicians that includes his father Warren Vaché a world renowned bassist and brother Warren Vaché, Jr. who is known for cornet and flugelhorn he grew up with the opportunity to study and play with some of the greatest players in the genre. From 1975-1992 he was a member of the Jim Cullum Jazz Band of San Antonio, but has now made a career freelance as a world traveler on the festival circuit. Our conversations throughout the weekend illuminated some of the maze of the business of playing jazz professionally. Listening to him play was inspiring, but he also encouraged me to take what I was hearing and apply it myself.
It was this exchange that got me excited about the possibilities of the Nina Simone Jazz Festival here in Tryon. How amazing to have the chance to bring in musicians like Rebecca Kilgore and Allan Vaché who not only share their talents from the stage, but offer help and advice to younger artists.