Jazz is usually an acquired taste. Combining the virtuosity of the classical musician with the groove of the blues jammer, it is a music that can challenge both the player and the listener. It would take many trips to the Jazz clubs in New York and Philadelphia to gain a true appreciation for the many facets of this harmonically sophisticated, melodically inventive music.
Fortunately, Berks County has a rich tradition of supporting Jazz, and you can totally immerse yourself in this indigenous American music and discover the joy of Jazz for 10 days every spring as the Berks Jazz Fest happens. This year the festival runs from March 28 to April 6.
John Ernesto has been General Manger for 21 of the Festival’s 24 years. He oversees the formidable task of booking and producing the over 120 performances that comprise the festival. He is excited about this year.
“We’ve put together a very diverse lineup of artists exploring the many styles of jazz – straight ahead, contemporary, blues, and gospel,” said Ernesto. “Our goal is to put together a festival that the entire Berks County community can be proud of.”
He has a core group of great musicians who come back year after year.
“We try to put them in various combinations to allow them to do different things to express their creativity.”
A few of the returning virtuosos who you will see at their scheduled shows and playing at the jams include bassists Gerald Veasley and Brian Bromberg, guitarists Chuck Loeb and Nick Colionne, saxophonists Gerald Albright and Boney James, keyboardist Jeff Lorber, trumpeter Rick Braun, and trombonist Brian Culbertson.
One unique aspect of Berks Jazz Fest is that performances are happening simultaneously at many venues throughout the county, rather than one show at one location like most festivals. This allows fans to experience full length concerts by their favorite artists, rather than just a single set.
In Boyertown, the festival is happening at the Other Farm Brewing Company, which is hosting five Jazz Fest events.
The series at the Other Farm kicks off Friday March 28 on a Latin note, with a Salsa Social Dance Party. You can get a dance lesson and learn to Cha Cha, Merengue, and Bachafa. This is a regular fourth Friday feature at the Other Farm, but for this special Jazz Fest event come dance to a live Latin band. On Saturday March 29, popular guitarist Dirk Quinn will be performing.
On April 3, the first Thursday Jazz & Blues Jam happens. You are invited to bring your instrumental and vocal talents and sit in with the Cider House Band. Listeners are always welcome, but don’t be surprised if you feel yourself moved to get up and sing and dance. I’ve been privileged to participate, and this jam will make you stretch your chops.
On Friday April 4, there will be a special performance by the Cider House Band, led by local Jazz legend Henry Frecon. Henry is a longtime supporter of Jazz in the area, and his saxophone and flute skills have been featured at Berks Jazz Fest events.
“We’ll be doing standards by Miles, Dizzy, and Brubeck to the contemporary classics of Billy Joel and Steely Dan. We have some of the finest musicians in the area on the bandstand.”
Featured will be regular band members Walt Pickell, drums, Mark Masciangelo, keyboards, Tom Heeney, guitar, and Daryl Atkinson, vocals. Special guests Al McCluch, bass, Dave Hemberger, trumpet, and Gene Terramni, guitar, will be featured. Michael Ronstadt and Wordplay will be playing on April 5.
Jazz Fest offers many educational activities and jam opportunities. Gerald Veasley hosts the popular Round Midnite Jams at Jazz Base. At Building 24, the newest Jazz Fest venue in Wyomissing, Pete Souders hosts a Jazz Jam on March 31, and the blues will be in the house with Keith Van Etten and Blues Factor April 3. Perhaps the best bang for the buck entertainment value is the Berks Bop on Wednesday, where Chuck Loeb and the some of the major stars of the festival get together in the intimate confines of the Jazz Base. The big boys get it on again at the All Star Jam on Thursday at the Crowne Plaza in Wyomissing, which is where many of the major concerts are held.
If you’re a lover of fine music, or are just curious about what the buzz is all about, you owe it to yourself to experience Berks Jazz Fest firsthand. Get up, get out, get Jazzed! Full concert and ticket information can be found on the website: www.berksjazzfest.com.
Steve Walker is a Berks musician, teacher, and journalist. He can be reached at Steve@hexhollowmusic.com.