In Poughkeepsie, a Convergence of Jazz Greats

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New York Times, by Phillip Lutz - Aug.12, 2016

N.Y. / REGION | MUSIC | WESTCHESTER

Waryas Park is a scenic if slightly scruffy patch of green on the Hudson River in Poughkeepsie, a city that has had problems with a struggling economy over the years.

Greer Smith, the founder of Jazz in the Valley, with Councilman Christopher Petsas at Waryas Park, the festival site.
Credit Meredith Heuer for The New York Times

But on Aug. 21, some of the world’s leading jazz musicians will gather in the park for the annual Jazz in the Valley festival, which is expected to attract crowds from around the region and help burnish the city’s image.

“There’s no question we have a bad perception problem to a lot of outsiders,” Christopher Petsas, a councilman, said. “But I think slowly we’re changing that. That’s why it’s important that we support this kind of event.”

Since the festival began in 2000, it has led a peripatetic existence around the area, occupying sites in West Park, Rosendale and Kerhonkson before landing in Waryas Park in 2012. The festival’s first year featured the pianist Ahmad Jamal, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, who debuted his composition “Picture Perfect.”

This year, the event’s main stage will feature two other National Endowment masters: the pianist Randy Weston and the drummer Jimmy Cobb. Mr. Weston will lead his African Rhythms Trio, including Alex Blake on bass and Neil Clarke on drums. Mr. Cobb will play with Jazz By 5, an all-star group made up of Randy Brecker on trumpet, Javon Jackson on saxophone, George Cables on piano and Eddie Gomez on bass.

These musicians do not plan to simply ad-lib a few choruses over the chord changes of popular standards. They will perform landmarks of the jazz idiom they helped originate.

Mr. Weston, 90, who has been integrating North African tones and textures into the language of jazz for decades, said he might reach back to Little Niles, the title track of his album from 1959. He might also play “Night in Medina,” “Tangier Bay” or “Marrakesh Blues,” from his 1970s albums “Blue Moses” and “Blues to Africa.”

“It depends on the vibrations of the audience, my spirit and what kind of message I want to give through the music,” he said.

Mr. Cobb, 87, expects to receive, and honor, requests to play “So What,” “Freddie Freeloader” or “All Blues” from the Miles Davis album “Kind of Blue.”

He might also perform “Limehouse Blues,” from “Cannonball Adderley Quintet in Chicago.” Like “Little Niles,” the Davis and Adderley albums were released in 1959, and Mr. Cobb, who appeared on both, has been revisiting them in recent years with Mr. Jackson playing parts originated by John Coltrane.

“He loves John Coltrane,” Mr. Cobb said. “He says John is the only guy he ever dreamt about. Since he knows that I played with John Coltrane, we do a lot of those tunes.”

Mr. Jackson, the festival’s artistic director, said he works to strike a balance as he interprets music associated with venerated artists like Coltrane. “The spirit is strong in those recordings,” he said. “It’s going to be coming through me. Hopefully, I can find a way of being me but still distilling the influence of my heroes.”

Rounding out the program on the main stage will be the trombonist Craig Harris and the singers Chico Alvarez, with the Palomonte Afro-Cuban Big Band, and Charenée Wade. A nearby pavilion will host lesser-known acts, among them the guitarist Slam Allen and the singer Stephanie Hancock, as well as the Dutchess County Community College Jazz Ensemble.

The festival is a relatively small affair, but it has attracted the attention of heavy hitters like George Wein, who founded the Newport Jazz Festival. Mr. Wein praised the founder of Jazz in the Valley, Greer Smith, for her knowledge and advocacy of jazz, adding that small events of quality play a part in the festival ecosystem, raising the profile of young musicians and giving a lift to the locales in which they are held. “We encourage these things,” he said.

Ms. Smith pointed to the social and psychological benefits to the community, including the residents of the Rip Van Winkle housing project, which is perched on a hill above Waryas Park. While many of the housing project’s young residents had little awareness of jazz history before visiting the festival, she said, they discovered a shared cultural heritage, as part of the African diaspora, with distinguished artists onstage.

“That’s the whole point,” said Ms. Smith, the president of Transart and Cultural Services, a Kingston nonprofit that promotes art of African descent and is presenting the festival.

But she said that keeping the festival afloat was a struggle. After foundation money dried up in the recession of 2008, she said, she curtailed forays of the musicians into local schools. With Poughkeepsie providing a small amount of money, grants from federal and state agencies supplied the bulk of the festival’s financing while she tried to get a hearing from the local business elite.

Supporters of the event like Mr. Petsas, a Poughkeepsie native, were investing their own time and money. In recent weeks, he has been pounding the pavement, soliciting help from small businesses. Along with the Exempt Firemen’s Association, a social group, he had paid for a series of small jazz concerts in Donegan Park, in the city’s Little Italy section, held on Saturdays leading up to the festival.

Those concerts are a first, he said, adding that ultimately he would like the festival, which is scheduled for a Sunday, to expand to a full weekend. That, he said, could be a real engine for the economy, though the one-day event had already made a difference.

“It has had a profound impact on the city of Poughkeepsie,” he said, “on our image and on me personally.”