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Jazzed About Jazz: The 35th annual NC Jazz Festival will take hold of ILM this weekend

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Enthusiasts once again will swing to the melodious brass instruments of jazz musicians from around the world when the NC Jazz Festival returns to Wilmington for its 35th annual event. One of the longest running jazz festivals in the nation, the NC Jazz Festival will be held at the Hilton Wilmington Riverside Hotel from Thursday, February 5 through Saturday, February 7.


Above: Dan Levinson. Photo by Dino Petrocelli.

The festival was created in 1980 by Wilmingtonian Dr. Harry Van Velser, a dermatologist, as well as a piano player and jazz lover. He invited several musicians he met in New York down to the Port City to play for him and his friends at his birthday party. As more people got on board with the idea, Velser’s birthday party evolved into a full-blown musical event.

Sandy Evans, the festival president for the last decade, was first asked to join the committee by Van Velser himself while she was president of the Cape Fear Jazz Society. After Van Velser’s retirement, Evans took over the responsibility as the main coordinator for the event. Since, she has loved combining the musical styles of internationally renowned jazz artists with local talent at the event each year.

“I love the way jazz musicians express themselves through improvisation,” Evans says. “Jazz music has a happy sound that I love. When Harry Van Velser first asked me to join the board for the festival, I immediately said yes because I love being able to support and promote jazz music in our community.”

Planning for this festival is a year-round affair. Many of the festival’s favorite musicians are in high-demand, so making contact with them early in the year is crucial for success.

“This year there will be several new artists, as well as many returning favorites,” Evans divulges. “On Thursday we will open the event with The Benny Hill Quartet.”

The Benny Hill Quartet, composed of former UNCW students, alto-saxophonist Benny Hill, pianist Brad Merritt, bassist Doug Irving, and drummer Israel Bannerman, will perform at 7:30 p.m. in the hotel ballroom. “I’m a Wilmington native, so it’s an honor to play at the festival that’s been around for most of my life,” says Hill. “When I’m playing, I feel joyful. That’s the kind of feeling the band and I strive for with our music.”

Following their performance, guests will swing to the festival’s feature vocalist Molly Ryan, who will be performing with the Dan Levinson Quartet. The Dan Levinson Quartet consists of Dan Levinson on the clarinet, alongside pianist Mark Shane, drummer Kevin Dorn, and Bria Skonberg on the trumpet.

They will be followed by a George Shearing tribute by Italian pianist Rossano Sportiello, who first began his career with historic European band, Milan Jazz Gang. He will perform with Australian bass player Nicki Parrott, a member of the Les Paul Trio in New York, and drummer Chuck Redd, a former member of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra. The evening will conclude with a three-hour concert by all of Thursday evening’s musical talent, led by cornetist Ed Polcer. A member of Benny Goodman’s sextet, Polcer also has performed for former U.S. president Bill Clinton at the 1994 Congressional Ball at the White House.

All of these talented musicians will stay to perform at the festival on Friday and Saturday night, from 7:30 p.m. ‘til 10:30 p.m. They will be performing seven sets together in groups of six to seven players, each led by a different leader. These concerts will be about four hours long.

“I love being able to see so many talented musicians from around the world play together for this event,” Evans says. “We strive to coordinate a diverse group of people in gender, age and nationality together every year.”

Another large part of the NC Jazz Festival is the organization’s Jazz Education program. This year the festival will host six Master Class workshops at the hotel on Friday from 4 p.m. to 6 p.m. These classes are open to local music students from schools and other private instruction programs. Vincent Garner will provide instruction on horns, Adrian Cunningham will inform on woodwind instruments, Nate Najar will head the guitar classes, and Bria Skonberg will teach trumpet.

Also featured this year will be violin instruction by Jonathan Russell, who began performing at the festival as a child prodigy in 2007. Russell started performing at age 5 and composing music at age 8. He was also one of the youngest feature musicians to ever perform at the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra at Rose Hall in New York. His outstanding musical abilities have earned him prestigious awards, such as U.S. Ambassador’s Award in Hungary.

“Jonathan Russell is the youngest musician we have ever showcased at the festival, and we are thrilled to have him return this year as a Master Class instructor,” states Evans.

The classes will be limited to 20 students. Registration forms can be found on the festival’s website (, and spots will be granted on a first-come-first-serve basis. Students who attend these classes also will be admitted to Friday night’s performances for an opportunity to hear their instructors perform in a professional setting.

As part of their Jazz Education program, the festival’s Thursday night musicians also will travel to Roland Grise Middle School on Friday afternoon, which is a tradition that has been upheld for the last decade. The NC Jazz Festival’s Jazz Education program also partners with DREAMS of Wilmington, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing after school programs in literary, performing and visual arts for Wilmington’s youth. About once a month, jazz musicians associated with the festival travel to DREAMS to perform a concert and offer a workshop. Funding for these programs is generated by proceeds from the festival, as well as through monetary donations. As the NC Jazz Festival is also a nonprofit organization, any donations made to the Jazz Education program or to the festival in general are tax-deductible. Contributors also will see their names on the festival’s website and in next year’s program. Early donations and ticket purchases throughout the year help immensely with planning and budgeting for the festivities.

“Many patrons send donations early in the year that not only help our budget for the festival, but they allow us to expand our Jazz Education program to DREAMS of Wilmington, Roland Grise Middle School, and now D.C. Virgo Preparatory Academy,” Evans notes. “We see many guests purchase their tickets for the next year’s festival right after our closing events.”

Tickets will be $15 per nightly event, or $60 to attend all three. Students will receive a special ticket price of $15 all three nights. Also available are patron packages starting at $200, which will give entry to Friday and Saturday’s events with preferred seating, a mention in the program, and an invitation to the Patron’s Musical Brunch on Saturday morning from 10:30 a.m. until 2 p.m. For an extra $25 patrons also will be admitted to Thursday’s special events. A full schedule of events can be found on the NC Jazz Festival’s website.


35th annual NC Jazz Festival

Hilton Wilmington Riverside
301 North Water Street
Thurs.-Sat., Feb. 5-7
Tickets: $15-$200

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Encore Magazine regularly covers topics pertaining to news, arts, entertainment, food, and city life in Wilmington. It also maintains schedules and listings of local events like concerts, festivals, live performance art and think-tank events. Encore Magazine is an entity of H&P Media, which also powers Wilmington’s local ticketing platform, Print and online editions are updated every Wednesday.

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