In 2005, when Sandy Evans, president of the NC Jazz Festival, took over the reins from founder Harry Van Velsor, it came as a shock. A jazz lover, Evans already was overseeing The Cape Fear Jazz Society.
“He announced it during the Saturday night of the NC Jazz Festival,” she remembers. “[And] that he was retiring—which was a surprise.”
Van Velsor, a local Wilmingtonian and a dermatologist, decided to found the festival in 1980 because he wanted to make jazz a prominent art form in the Cape Fear. It began as a two-night event, showcasing traditional jazz among 10 different artists from the United States; making it more of an intimate gathering. Today it has grown into three days, featuring seven sets with a leader on Friday and Saturday night and three acts on Thursday night from all around the world and includes traditional and modern styles of jazz, like New Orleans style and Brazilian for this year, changing every year.
Evans has been directing the NC Jazz Festival for 14 years now, which takes place in downtown’s Ballast Hotel (née Hilton) this weekend. The event sells out its 500 seats annually and has grown from being a mere concert to providing jazz education to elementary-, middle- and high-school students. Jazz musicians like Canadian Bria Skonberg will teach a vocal class in 2019, while Australian multi-instrumentalist Adrian Cunningham will lead the reeds class. Chuck Redd will conduct a percussions class, Bruce Harris will take on trumpet, with Jonathan Russell teaching violin, and Dr. Dion Tucker (Harry Connick Jr.’s trombonist) doing trombone.
Though an American-born art form, jazz’s worldwide appeal keeps attendees coming to ILM from all areas of the world; only half are from North Carolina. “That’s one of the things we love about having these people from all over,” Evans remarks. “They show just how much of the U.S. has influenced music in other parts of the world.”
The opening act for 2019 will be Leonard “El Jaye” Johnson. Known for his energetic and funky style of playing guitar, keyboard and trumpet, Johnson is well-known for his solo work and with his band, The Port City All-Stars. Johnson’s influences are far-reaching, from George Benson to Ronnie Jordan to Miles Davis to Wilmington’s very own Grenoldo Frazier. “[Grenoldo’s] untimely death back in December shocked everybody,” Johnson says. “After that occurred, Sandy approached me and asked if I would be willing to perform in his place.”
Frazier performed during the 32nd and 34th years of the festival, and was well-known for his Broadway tours and local impact on the music and theatre scenes.
Johnson’s friendship with Frazier began after he helped him record in Johnson’s EDJE Records studio. “He was just a one-of-a-kind entertainer [and] had his own style,” Johnson says.
So it was no shock to Johnson he had big shoes to fill upon taking over Frazier’s slot. “It is kinda overwhelming at first,” Johnson admits humbly. “I was like, ‘Wow, really me?’”
Like Frazier, Johnson doesn’t focus solely on jazz music. “[Grenoldo] did a lot of songs out of the American songbook and pop songs,” Johnson adds, “but, you know, he made them his own. I can see why they would ask me because I kinda make music my own.”
Johnson will perform Thursday night, kicking off the festival at 7:30 p.m. Playing thereafter will be one of Brazil’s top singers and performers, Maucha Adnet, along with Duduka da Fonseca. Adrian Cunningham will close the evening. Friday and Saturday nights will consist of seven different sets of musicians playing for more than four hours.
Though 2019’s event has yet to get underway, Evans is already looking toward the 40th anniversary in 2020. She says there will be an emphasis on youth, focusing on rising stars in the modern jazz world.
Tickets and weekend passes to the 2019 festival are available now at the festival’s website; students and military discounts are available as well.