Knoxville Jazz Fest Blows into Town

It’s been a couple of days since I posted. I’m trying to pace myself a bit better, but also, a major event hit Knoxville this weekend and some days I’m in the middle of doing and, so, can’t be writing. Yesterday was one of those days. It was exhausting and fun.

I agreed to be a driver for the festival (you might want to read the post from a few days ago to get an idea of what the festival was about this year). Since I love music and am fascinated by musicians, I figured it would be an exciting and interesting day. It was. Some parts were more exciting and others more interesting. I arrived at the airport about ten minutes early, but parked at the wrong place. I figured that out and got to the pick-up point just in time as the band members walked out onto the sidewalk. Ready to be picked up were Vincent Herring, Buster Williams, Larry Willis and Eddie Henderson. All legends and none of them wanting to stand on the curb waiting for the other car, which we had to do for about five painful minutes due to an unavoidable delay. Some were more patient than others.

Larry, who I came to really enjoy through the day told me a pointed story about being late. He said that when he was young he was always late for gigs. A band leader took him aside and told him there were four reasons this was a bad thing. First, the late musician is uptight and rushing to get in place and so he will not play as well. Second, the other musicians are uptight wondering if the person will show and they won’t play as well. Third, the audience expected the show to start on time and they will be harder to win over. Fourth, and perhaps most significantly to a young, hungry artist, being late violates the contract and you might not get paid. He was never late again. As he finished the story about breached contracts and being late, I’m sure the beads of sweat on my forehead were obvious to passengers in the descending planes overhead.

Soon enough, the other car arrived. They all piled inside the Mercedes until it was full, leaving Vincent to climb into my Prius. I enjoyed talking to him on the trip to Knoxville, as well as through the course of the day. He seemed struck by my 50+ miles per gallon. We talked a bit about Knoxville and he remembered bits about being here before.

The next pick-up was at 2:30 for sound-check. At that point we learned that our group of four was now a group of seven. Javon Jackson had arrived the previous night, as had Jimmy Cobb. Also added to the group was Tony Wheelock, the group’s road manager, who turned out to be a fun, interesting addition to the mix. Javon told everyone he had seen Donald Brown the night before. Several of the others said they wished they had known he was in Knoxville because they would have come early (from New York City) to hear him. It reminded me all over again, what a treasure we have in Donald. I’ve mentioned it before and will soon post about him, again, along with a nice video I found. Javon later told me that he considers Donald a real mensch. He said it was Donald who gave him him first big break by introducing him to Art Blakey.

Tony talks to Buster with Eddie in the background.
Jimmy adds his cymbals and gets the drums ready.
Eddie tests his sound with Jimmy in the background.
Jimmy playing drums at sound-check.
Eddie and Jimmy.
Jimmy and Javon at sound-check.

With cars full we drove them to the Bijou. Exacting and all-business, the sound-check would be enough for the casual observer to understand that the musicians were exceptional. Precise instructions on placements of drums and piano, including angles and proximity to other musicians followed lengthy instructions regarding volume, tone, reverb, highs and lows on every microphone and both the house and monitor volumes. Pieces of various songs were played, but the opening bars of “So What,” the lead track from  “Kind of Blue,” seemed to often surface.

Once everyone was satisfied with the sound, a large debate ensued over whether to eat lunch/supper. By then it was around 4:00. Eddie wanted Asian food, not many other people were hungry, so they made the obvious choice: Calhoun’s on the River for ribs. I took a couple of the guys back to the hotel.

Jimmy graciously poses with anyone who asks.

The reception started at 5:30 and a small crowd gathered to greet Jimmy Cobb, who was very gracious. All these guys are stars in the jazz universe and I wondered how they felt back at the hotel while Jimmy was honored. If you follow the links above you see that they have each have very established and often stellar careers. If there was dissatisfaction on this day, I couldn’t tell it.

The concert began around 8:00 with opening remarks by Donald Brown, followed by a short film and then the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra. I’m embarrassed to admit this is the first time I’ve heard them, but I’ll say the musicianship was excellent, all around. New local resident, Greg Tardy joined in for a portion of the set and got a great response from the crowd of about 500.

I left early to pick up the guys at the hotel and found Tony already seated in the lobby. It was another chance to talk with a person who has had a very interesting career in the music business. I enjoyed several such conversations with him during the day, and enjoyed connecting on the various forms of music and musicians we both enjoyed. He’s a laid-back, easy guy to work with and I’m glad he came along.

Tony and Larry share a laugh before the show.
Jimmy and Vincent in the hotel lobby before the show.
Jimmy gets assistance with his drum set-up before the show.

Jimmy makes sure everything is in place before the curtain rises.

The guys looked much prettier than they had earlier and we made the drive, yet another time, to the Bijou. After the Knoxville Jazz Orchestra finished their set, I watched the set up back stage and was impressed at how efficiently the guys working behind the scene got everything broken down and replaced everything from instruments to sound-levels back to the specifications requested at the sound check.

The guys take final bows.

The show, for me, while excellent, seemed more a continuation of the day than a real climax to the day. The guys were smooth, professional and seemed to be in good spirits, often seen laughing about some private joke or mistake. No one addressed the crowd until Jimmy said a few words at the conclusion. Most of the audience stayed until the conclusion, but some wandered out – a behavior that has always mystified me at concerts. What if the magic moment is after you get into your car? Those who stayed seemed to have a great time.

After the show, the guys were in no hurry to leave, but finally assembled to travel to the S and W for a late-night jam session. I took several there, came back to the Bijou and took Tony to the hotel and returned to the S and W around midnight for the start of the jam session. It was fun, but if ever there were too many musicians in the house, this might have been the night. Jimmy and his band mostly stayed at their tables while local favorites in various alignments, including many from the KJO entertained the crowd.

Ben Maney plays an inspired set at the S and W.

One highlight was the piano work of Ben Maney who most of us know best from the Tennessee Shines house band.

Larry closes down the night.

My favorite performance of a day filled with great performances came at just after 1:30AM. Larry took the grand piano and played a beautiful, soft and plaintive version of  an old Duke Ellington song. I missed the name of the song, but it was a gorgeous, elegant ending to a great day of music. All that remained was one final trip to the Holiday Inn and falling into bed at 2:00AM, exhausted and happy at the conclusion of another great chapter of the city.

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