Trends in music change all the time. These days, Auto-Tune, Justin Bieber’s high vocals and songs about “California Gurls” (yes, with a “u”) are not foreign concepts; they’re what much of America hears as true “music.” Yet, there are a few genres that have stayed timeless over the years. Since the early 20th century, jazz is one of the pleasant rarities in music that has remained fairly true to its original form. Loyal jazz fans continue to celebrate their deep appreciation for the music, and many from all over the U.S. will travel to Wilmington this week, February 17th through 19th, for the annual NC Jazz Festival.
The festival will showcase the talents of 15 world-renowned musicians, including trombonist Wycliffe Gordon and cornetist Ed Polcer, as well as brilliant up-and-coming jazz musicians, like drummer Kevin Dorn. “We have the best of traditional jazz musicians,” Sandy Evans, NC Jazz Festival president, says.
The festival exposes gifted jazz newcomers as well as classic players with whom many are familiar. The accomplished bunch range in age, gender, instrumentation and style. The youngest, 15-year-old New Yorker Jonathan Russell, is considered by many to be a child prodigy. As a jazz violinist who has played all over the U.S. and Europe, the young man already writes music and composes scores. Several musicians represent international talent, such as Nicki Parrott, a double-bassist from Australia and jazz pianist Rossanno Sportiello from Italy.
The music will be presented in the form of big band as an ensemble, with much of it in the style of Dixieland, one of the earliest forms of jazz founded in New Orleans. Evans, who has been in charge of the event for nearly six years now, says that the amount of talent never ceases to amaze her.
“These musicians know all the music,” she says. “It’s all in their heads; it just blows me away. They get together without rehearsing. Friday and Saturday night, there are seven sets each night, and they take turns in each set. There is a leader who starts the tune, and the rest all just jump right in and know what to play.”
The festival has quickly gained popularity since its beginning in 1980. Local dermatologist Harry VanVelsor, who also happened to be a jazz lover, and a saxophone and piano player, founded the Lower Cape Fear Dixieland Band. Thus, the festival got its start.
“It really started as more of a private party,” Evans explains, “where his friends met, with three or four musicians. Soon, it became pretty well known. People just started coming from all over.”
Evans acknowledges that some people consider jazz a dying art form since it is not necessarily as mainstream today as other types of music. However, despite those opinions, jazz maintains an increasing fan base.
“Jazz continues to have new types of rhythms,” she says. “[Jazz musicians] put their own stamp on their music. I mean, when you listen to Dave Matthews Band, you automatically know it’s Dave Matthews Band. That’s how it is with so many musicians. [Jazz] is not going to wear out.”
In fact, a few of the musicians will be introducing local students to some of their first tastes of jazz; the pros are hosting musical workshops for the children from Roland Grise Middle School’s music classes on Friday morning during the festival. “Not all of these kids will be playing on the stage when they get older, but they will be in the audience one day [at jazz performances],” Evans says.
The festival kicks off at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, February 17th, at the Hilton Riverside. UNCW’s Jazz Ensemble will open the show that evening. On Friday and Saturday night, there are seven scheduled back-to-back sets, with each containing five to six people. Each set will feature a different leader.
There will also be a brunch at the hotel on Saturday morning in honor of the patrons who purchase tickets for the entire weekend. During the brunch, from 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m., 15 musicians will be playing, and in the last hour, they will have a jam session.
“At that time, any of the patrons who are musicians are invited to sit in with the all-stars,” Evans says. The event is nonprofit; tickets are $35 for Thursday evening and $50 for Friday’s and Saturday’s performances. Discounts for military are $25; $15 for students for all three nights. All concerts begin at 7:30 p.m. For more information and the full list of musicians playing, visit ncjazzfestival.com.