All That Jazz

Connecticut’s jazz scene is huge – and historic
By Doug Maine
 
The Monday night jazz series in downtown Hartford’s Bushnell Park – now known as the Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz series – has featured some stellar performances by some of the biggest names in jazz, but surely none has been more electrifying than one that took place on Aug. 4, 1997.
By the time the headline act, Mark Elf Guitars Inc., took the stage, an unrelenting torrent of rain was drenching the park and a good part of the park pavilion’s covered stage. Technicians had moved cables and electronic equipment into dry spaces, while Elf and fellow electric guitarists Melvin Sparks and Roni Ben-Hur, plus bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Jackie Williams, were set up close to the back wall of the stage.
A half dozen or so water-logged fans stuck it out, leaning on the front of the stage. At stage right, two volunteer radio announcers, including this writer, and the radio station’s engineer, nearly jumped out of their skin when lightning struck between the back of the pavilion and the embankment on which trains move in and out of Hartford’s Union Station. Fortunately, the only sparks to fly that night were creative.
The Monday night jazz series in downtown Hartford’s Bushnell Park – now known as the Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz series – has featured some stellar performances by some of the biggest names in jazz, but surely none has been more electrifying than one that took place on Aug. 4, 1997.
By the time the headline act, Mark Elf Guitars Inc., took the stage, an unrelenting torrent of rain was drenching the park and a good part of the park pavilion’s covered stage. Technicians had moved cables and electronic equipment into dry spaces, while Elf and fellow electric guitarists Melvin Sparks and Roni Ben-Hur, plus bassist Marcus McLaurine and drummer Jackie Williams, were set up close to the back wall of the stage.
A half dozen or so water-logged fans stuck it out, leaning on the front of the stage. At stage right, two volunteer radio announcers, including this writer, and the radio station’s engineer, nearly jumped out of their skin when lightning struck between the back of the pavilion and the embankment on which trains move in and out of Hartford’s Union Station. Fortunately, the only sparks to fly that night were creative.
Weather forecasts that morning had convinced series founder and organizer Paul Brown that the show could go on outdoors, and once that decision was made, there was no turning back; sound and lighting crews went to work. Once the musicians took the stage, their determination as artists to create and share their work took over, even if it was mostly for a radio audience.
These days, jazz is showcased and celebrated at popular events statewide, particularly during the summer.
Branford is buzzing 
The Branford Jazz on the Green series is celebrating its 11th year of free summer concerts. The 2019 series will consist of nine weekly shows beginning at 6:30 p.m., from June 27 through August 29.
Dale Izzo, assistant director of the town’s recreation department, says the lineup of performers is put together by a committee of town employees and local residents, some motivated by their love for the town and others who love jazz.
“The crowds are anywhere from 2,500 to 4,000 or 5,000. Some of the artists have a big following. We’ve really put Branford on the map. We get people that come from all around the state and sometimes beyond,” says Izzo.
Some bring chairs and sit enjoying the music, while others bring picnic suppers, Izzo says. The children of some concertgoers get up and dance to the music. Most sit on the main part of the green or in front of the Town Hall. There’s an ice cream shop across from the green, and restaurants where diners can dine al fresco and listen to the music.
Izzo says the committee “tries to choose performers in a variety of jazz genres,” and an effort is made not to present the same groups year after year. She adds, “we’re really thankful to our sponsors, most of whom have been with us from the beginning.”
In case of rain or other bad weather, the concerts are canceled. The status of each show will be posted on the website branfordjazz.com. No dogs or alcoholic beverages are permitted.
More on the shore
From 2008 through 2016, Jazz New Haven presented the New Haven Jazz Festival on the Green each August, in cooperation with the city and festival sponsors. While the festival is no more, jazz is alive and well in the Elm City, and fans can find it all over Greater New Haven, and beyond.
Drummer Gil Hawkins leads the Hawkins Jazz Collective every Wednesday from 9 p.m. to midnight in the cigar lounge and bar at the Owl Shop Cigar Shop. These free performances offer “hard-driving, straight-ahead jazz that represents the best of the post-bop era,” according to the collective.
Firehouse 12 presents experimental and contemporary jazz concerts on Friday nights during its 12-week fall and spring series. Musicians can submit a narrative description of their music, a recent bio, and links to streaming audio for a chance to perform at the venue, which offers an acoustically balanced, soundproofed recording studio and performance space, along with an in-house bar and lounge.
Cafe 9 is home to a long-running jazz jam session every Saturday from 4 to 7 p.m. Each week, musicians come to the club eager to show what they can do and put their names on a list, and the musician hosting that week’s session sorts it all out, trying to keep the line moving and the music coming, according to guitarist Gary Grippo, who sometimes acts as the host while also performing.
The Blake has a weekly Sunday jazz brunch series showcasing some of the state’s finest musicians, providing smooth, Latin, straight-ahead, and many other styles of jazz, along with a unique menu and great service.
And if you don’t mind a short drive, The Side Door Jazz Club at the Old Lyme Inn presents some of the top touring jazz acts from New York and beyond, on Friday and Saturday evenings. The club really is the Connecticut’s heavyweight venue for year-round jazz performances, attracting audiences from all throughout the state. Seating is limited but reservations are available.
The Ayuthai Restaurant in Guilford hosts Dr. Joe Cardinale & Friends every Sunday from 6-8 p.m. This group of jazz musicians consists of a rotating group of local and international jazz greats, offering everything from classic standards to new compositions.
Every Sunday from 5-8 p.m., Home Restaurant in Branford offers jazz performances in its “living room.” Seating is first come, first served.
Sarah’s Wine Bar in Ridgefield not only offers award-winning cuisine by French chefs Bernard and Sarah Bouissou but hosts The Jazz Masters Series on the last Sunday of each month. The series features world-class jazz musicians in duo and trio settings.
The Ridgefield Playhouse, which presents national and local acts and is the cultural hub for the town of Ridgefield, serves up jazz performances on a regular basis, along with many other types of music, comedy, film-related events.
New England Arts & Entertainment’s “Jazz at the Poli Club” series takes place in an elegant space in Waterbury’s historic Palace Theater. Subscriptions are available for the four-show summer jazz series, with two shows each in July and August.
Monday Nights in the Park 
Hartford’s Monday night jazz series is just one of multiple jazz festivals and events that are available to fans of this music genre, many of them started or maintained by musicians whose talents and expertise are known far beyond Connecticut’s borders.
Brown, an esteemed and beloved educator, community activist and bassist who played in New York and toured with many of the top musicians in jazz, founded the Hartford series in 1967, under the auspices of the Garden Area Neighborhood Council, a grassroots organization formed to enrich the lives of residents of the city’s North End.
The first three outdoor concerts were held at Fred D. Wish school on Barbour Street. They featured the great saxophonist Cannonball Adderley with his quintet, blues legend Muddy Waters, and trumpeter Clark Terry’s big band. It was an auspicious start.
The concerts were held in various locations until the series settled into its permanent home at Bushnell Park. Despite perennial struggles to obtain funding, Brown managed to bring many of the most highly regarded jazz musicians to Hartford. After 41 years, he stepped down at the end of the 2007 series. The nonprofit Hartford Jazz Society took over production in 2008, assuming responsibility for fundraising, securing permits and the countless other details that make the series happen. This year’s series runs from July 8 through August 12.
Paul Brown passed away in May 2016, and the series was renamed in his honor. Today, Maurice D. Robertson, a member of the jazz society’s board of directors and the committee that plans the series, emcees each show and has to make the sometimes agonizing decision as to whether the expected weather warrants moving that night’s show indoors. The rain location for the concerts is the Asylum Hill Congregational Church, 814 Asylum Ave. in Hartford.
Every concert is a team effort, says Robertson. “The board members show up, take charge and do what they have to.” The evening’s opening band hits at 6 p.m. After their set and a short break, the headliners take the stage at 7:30 p.m.
The crowds are congenial and diverse, and some people are more attentive to the music than others, but that’s okay, he says, “as long as you’re considerate of your neighbors.”
All concerts in the series are broadcast live by WWUH 91.3 FM, the University of Hartford radio station, and streamed live at wwuh.org. The broadcasts are hosted by members of the station’s volunteer staff, who interview the performers during the breaks between sets.
More jazz when you leave the park
Parkgoers can get more jazz just by crossing the street from Bushnell Park to Black-eyed Sally’s at 350 Asylum St. in Hartford. Every Monday night, a featured band – usually local musicians but not infrequently big-city jazz names – plays the first set; after a break, a jam session ensues, and other musicians are welcome to test their mettle. On most Mondays, the music happens from 8 to 11 p.m. On the six Mondays of the Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz series, the start time is pushed back to 8:30 p.m. Musicians under 21 are welcome. The series is also sponsored by the Hartford Jazz Society.
On the east side of downtown, near the Connecticut Convention Center, the 16-piece Hartford Jazz Orchestra has been performing every Monday night at the Arch Street Tavern since 1998. In 2016, band members told Michael Hamad of the Hartford Courant that what makes the HJO sound unlike that of any other big band are the 150 or so charts, or arrangements, given exclusively to the band by Charles “Chic” Cicchetti, an orchestrator, trombonist and pianist who led the aggregation from the late-1970s until his passing in 2000.
Since then, the band has been directed by jazz pianist and arranger Donn Trenner, a New Haven native whose career has included playing with Charlie Parker and Stan Getz, participating in seven of comedian Bob Hope’s Christmas USO tours, working as pianist-conductor for Lena Horne, Nancy Wilson, Vicki Carr and Jack Jones, and serving as musical director for television’s “The Steve Allen Show,” before moving back to Connecticut in 1996.
The Hartford Jazz Society’s biggest annual fundraising activity is its annual jazz and blues river cruise, and this year’s cruise, the 58th annual, is scheduled for Sept. 7. The seven-hour floating jazz party travels from the State Pier in Haddam, down the Connecticut River to Long Island Sound and back. It will feature continuous music as two bands alternate, Ronnie Burrage & Holographic Principle and Liviu Pop & Friends. Riders can bring their own picnic baskets, drinks and coolers, although hot dogs and free ice and cold drinks are available on board. Reserved table seating is available. The event is for adults only, and pets are not permitted.
An entire weekend of jazz
The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz packs free jazz in Bushnell Park into one weekend. The crowds are big, and there will be a variety of food for sale and other vendors offering items like art, crafts and apparel. Concerts are held rain or shine.
Like the Monday night series, the festival was created by Paul Brown, who researched weekend jazz festivals around the country before proposing a summer weekend event that would bring additional business to downtown Hartford. The new festival debuted in 1992.
The 2019 festival will get underway at 6:30 p.m. July 19, with the Funky Dawgz Brass Band, followed by an octet led by trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis, a member of the famous family of musicians from New Orleans. On July 20 and 21, performances begin at 2:30.
Upstate jazz
The Litchfield Jazz Festival, long the brightest star in Connecticut’s constellation of summer jazz activity, has left its longtime home at the Goshen Fairgrounds and will be held July 26-28 in the intimate, air-conditioned Emerson Performing Arts Center at the Gunnery, a private school in Washington, Connecticut.
Friday, July 26 will include a “Friends of the Festival Gala” starting at 5:30 p.m., at the Judy Black Memorial Park and Gardens in Washington Depot. At 7:45, the music begins in the Emerson PAC, with the Litchfield Jazz Orchestra and guest vocalist Alexis Cole.
While space is limited and all seating is ticketed for performances inside the Emerson PAC, other elements of the festival – such as student concerts, artist talks and clinics, food, drink and family entertainment – will be part of a new “OuterFest,” next door to the concert hall, on July 27 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. This part of the festival is free.
Music Mountain may seem an unlikely location for Saturday evening jazz concerts. Founded in 1930 and set on a 120-acre mountaintop campus in Falls Village, in the state’s northwest corner, its primary mission is “the performance and teaching of the string quartet literature,” which it realizes as a summer center for music education and performances.
The series – now called “Twilight Jazz & More,” and with an earlier starting time of 5 p.m. – isn’t 100-percent jazz; there are evenings of Gilbert and Sullivan, show tunes and a cabaret singer.
All concerts are held in the 348-seat Gordon Hall. “The concerts are intimate,” says Music Mountain’s artistic director, Oskar Espina-Ruiz, a noted classical clarinetist. After they perform, “the artists come out and they mingle with audience members.”
Anyone under 18 can attend performances at Music Mountain for free if they accompany a paying adult; those planning to bring a young guest should notify the box office in advance, to ensure that that seating is available.
For more information on the Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz series, the Jazz River Cruise, and The Side Door Jazz Club, visit hartfordjazzsociety.com. Information on other events is available at branfordjazz.comlitchfieldjazzfest.com and musicmountain.org. Also check out newhaven.jazznearyou.com and hartford.jazznearyou.com.

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