Traditionalists and Modernists Mix at Suncoast Jazz Festival

December 31, 2021

You check into your Clearwater Beach, FL, hotel room, and somewhere down the hall, you hear the sound of an instrument playing trad jazz, no doubt rehearsing for a poolside jam session and superannuated second line parade that opens the Suncoast Jazz Festival. It harkens back some three-plus decades when the then-Suncoast Jazz Classic featured cornets, tubas, banjos, washboards, and the like. Attendees to the earliest fest no doubt had no trouble finding such hardware at the latest event, November 18-20, where artists and repertoire also moved forward a few decades.

This year’s festival started with a poolside jam and second line that concluded in the hotel lobby a few steps from the ballrooms and bar that contained most of the weekend’s entertainment, starting with the Alexander W. Dreyfoos School of the Arts Band. The extremely talented student group was one of several featured including the University of South Florida Bone Band, the Ruth Eckerd Hall Youth Jazz Band, and the Tarpon Springs High School Jazz Ensemble.

The biggest names at the festival were bassist/trombonist Chris and drummer Dan Brubeck (pictured above), sons of renowned pianist Dave Brubeck. Their quartet performed several sets over the weekend, and these two modernists conducted a workshop for students.

While Covid cancelled the 2020 festival, the previous year saw the arrival of another “modernist,” vibist Jason Marsalis, who was invited back for 2021. Fitting in with a variety of musicians, Marsalis played nicely in swing and bebop styles, ranging from Lionel Hampton to Milt Jackson. He is an engaging performer and relates well to an audience, qualities that are valued by attendees at Suncoast.

The festival is run by an eager collection of volunteers, who handle everything from promotions to green room food to sound. If you have any questions or comments, Board Chair and Festival Director Joan Dragon is ubiquitous, showing up at the various venues, not hogging the spotlight, just floating around as a fan.

Another volunteer who was key to this year’s event was Rachel Domber, a local resident whose Arbors Records Jazz label stepped up to sponsor its artists for the festival. Thus, it’s no small coincidence that Arbors musicians were all over the place. In fact, Arbors was the presenting sponsor. Back when Domber and her late husband Mat ran the record company, they hosted jazz parties at the Sheraton Sand Key, the main hotel for Suncoast, giving the festival a familiar feel for those who remember those events.

Among those Arbors artists and bands participating in the festival were the trio La Lucha, featuring pianist John O’Leary, bassist Alejandro Arena, and drummer Mark Feinman; another trio of bassist Nicki Parrott, drummer Ed Metz; and pianist Rossano Sportiello; “Professor” Adrian Cunningham’s Old School; and Brazilian guitarist Diego Figueiredo and pianist Dick Hyman (photo below). The ageless Hyman was playing with the verve of somebody half his 94 years. The real genius in this type of programming was that all these artists could play interchangeably with each other with no difficulties in adapting stylistically.

The witty Australian Cunningham used one of his festival performances to serve as a CD release party for his new album,“The Lockdown Blues, which he and his bandmates created remotely in isolation. To stress that Covid-centric aspect of the production, Cunningham and company held a “pajama party” encouraging audience members to join them in appropriate sleepy time garb.

The artistic mix-and-match game continued throughout the weekend. Xylophonist Heather Thorn’s neo-swing combo, Vivacity, could be seen in various incarnations around the festival, with different horn players popping in and out. New Jersey native Allan Vache, brought in from his home in Texas to play with a festival all-star group, found himself going toe-to-toe with fellow clarinetist Dave Bennett, who himself had a quartet that could play both swing and rockabilly with equal dexterity. Cape Coral, FL, resident Don Mopsick, another New Jersey (Linden) transplant, could be heard supporting a number of different groups as well. Vocalist Betty Comora, still yet another former New Jerseyan, led different groupings with all manner of washboards and kitchen tools. The busker-like stylings of the husband-wife team of Paul and Theresa Scavarda made for entertaining music in their alter egos of Bakey and Betty. Charlie Byrd acolyte Nate Najar, a brilliant guitarist, could be heard quite a bit with Brazilian vocalist Daniela Soledade

Since this was very much a group effort, many audience members sponsored the venues and, in many cases, individual acts. It seems that if you have a group you’re fond of, one way to hear them is offer to sponsor its appearance. You can tell the popularity of some acts by sponsors and years of participation, listed in the program book. Dynamic violinist Tom Rigney and his group Flambeau is one such aggregation, having some 10 visits from California to its credit. Rigney plays in styles that range from Zydeco, to blues to country. Although he fancies himself a fiddler, you can tell by his playing that there’s quite a bit of classical training in those chops. Cornet Chop Suey from St. Louis, another repeat attender, keeps the flag waving for more traditional jazz. Trombonist Bill Allred not only played in Disney World’s band on its opening day, he played at the very first Suncoast event as well. He had the honor of leading a collection of seasoned professionals as 2021 festival all-stars.

If all this weren’t enough, the festival continued what has become its tradition of presenting an evening for swing dancing in one of the ballrooms, using a succession of the groups that kept people on their feet.  And it would be criminal not to mention the scheduling of an afternoon of 30-minute solo sets by pianists from various groups, something that brought to mind Mat Domber’s Arbors parties. And like those, it was definitely a triumph of variety. –STORY AND PHOTOS BY MITCHELL SEIDEL

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