By Hannah Taylor
the Durham VOICE
James Ketch, conductor of the jazz band at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, punched the air with quick sweeps of his hand as the sounds of full, brassy jazz music exploded into the air of the Hayti Heritage Center in Durham.
First, there was the low thrumming of the upright bass. The drums and cymbals sizzled with attitude with every quick tap and kept the rapid pace for the entire ensemble. A piano rang jubilantly, and a guitar contributed another layer of melody to the complex arrangement, originally played by John Coltrane. The loudest sound of all came from about a dozen proud saxophones, trombones and trumpets.
Each instrument was impressive on its own, but together the talented musicians who played them brought big band to life.
The Hayti Heritage Center, 804 Old Fayetteville St., celebrated its 8th Annual Valentine’s Jazz Festival on Feb.13 with performances by the jazz ensembles of Duke University, North Carolina Central University and UNC-CH. This year’s festival featured a preconcert talk with Jimmy Heath, a legendary saxophonist, composer and arranger who performed with some of the most well-known jazz musicians of the last 50 years, including Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane.
“The addition of a conversation with Jimmy Heath was wonderful,” said Elaine Crovitz, a retired faculty member of the Duke University School of Medicine who has attended the festival since its first year. Known by friends as “Mama Jazz” for her support of jazz music and musicians in the community, Crovitz was one of about 200 audience members at the event.
“The musicians, the faculty and the students were all inspired just by being with one another,” Crovitz said. “They were especially inspired because of who they were playing to. I think all the students tried as hard as possible to perform exceptionally because they had a jazz giant in the audience.”
John Brown, who originally had the idea for a collaborative jazz festival, said he was pleased that the festival continues to “contribute to the conversation” of keeping jazz alive and that students, faculty and community members take such a keen interest in the music.
“There is a message of love and unity in jazz music that connected the audience,” Brown said. “The festival promotes interaction among dedicated people, many of whom are here today.”
Brown said that people come to the concert from all over North Carolina’s Piedmont region and that the program attracts a variety of jazz lovers.
The appreciation of the music was evident in the audience members, few of which sat still. Nearly everyone in the audience—many dressed in red in honor of the holiday— tapped a foot or nodded throughout the performances. Most songs featured soloists who stood up, closed their eyes and played with passion so evident that it regularly resulted in applause and hoots of approval from the audience.
“The Valentine’s Jazz Festival is the only time that these three bands play together,” Crovitz said. She added that the distance of the universities and busy and conflicting schedules make such collaborations rare.
“There are wonderfully talented people in this area,” Crovitz said. In fact, she called this community with no defined scope or boundaries a “family of jazz” that is always open to new additions. She said that local musicians, high school and university jazz programs, teachers and music lovers are all a part of the jazz identity in the Triangle.
“All of this is raising the next generation of musicians to enjoy jazz music,” Crovitz said. “It’s very important.”
Jimmy Heath put similar emphasis on inspiring a love of jazz in youth.
“Practice all the time,” he said, advising the music students in the audience. “You’ve got to love it first. Listen to everybody and find your own niche.”
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