Sounds of the City: Summer jazz festivals and a long-awaited opening
Seven summers ago, the Colored Musicians Club (CMC) hosted its first one-day outdoor jazz festival by setting up a stage near the club building and persuading City Hall to close one city block to provide space for listeners to groove and party. On July 28, the CMC presents the 7th Annual Queen City Jazz Festival, on a date that nearly marks the anniversary of the club’s founding in 1935. The festival attracts music lovers of all ages who drive, walk, or bike to the event which runs from noon until 8 p.m. This year’s lineup includes vocalist Lady Lita with Bilal Abdullah and the Jazz Example, the George Scott Big Band, Van Taylor and Taylor Made Jazz, Gruvology, saxophonist Will Holton, the Exoutics, Jazzline, and the Larry Salter Big Band.
The festival also coincides with the long-awaited opening of the Colored Musicians Club Jazz Museum on the first floor of the club building at 145 Broadway. Originally scheduled to open last October in time for the National Trust for Historic Preservation Conference, a series of planning and construction setbacks pushed the museum opening to this summer. The museum honors the founders and members of American Federation of Musicians (AFM) Local 533, an independent union of black musicians formed in 1917 in response to the segregationist policies of the national AFM and its local all-white affiliate, Local 43. Exhibits also trace the history and development of the Colored Musicians Club, the social organization created by the leaders of 533 to provide an environment of relaxation and camaraderie for its members.
Designed for a range of visitors from music scholars to jazz fans to school groups, the museum features interactive displays, musical instruments, video, audio soundsticks, display cases with artifacts, and even a vintage working jukebox. Displayed on a prominent wall are period photographs of twenty-one musicians along with brief biographies citing their importance to the national jazz scene and to Buffalo’s vibrant musical culture during much of the past century.
Touchscreen monitors offer additional detailed information about each artist as well as performance videos and examples of their recorded music. Many of these musicians played with jazz legends such as Charlie Parker, Count Basie, Thelonious Monk, Louis Armstrong, and Dizzy Gillespie, while others like Billy Eckstine, Jimmie Lunceford, Grover Washington Jr., and Lil Hardin Armstrong were justly celebrated in their own right.
One thing you discover here is that the careers of jazz musicians seldom follow a predictable arc from obscurity to success. Dodo Greene, for example, turned down an offer from Cozy Cole so she could keep working in medicine and singing at the Club Moon-Glo, but later went to New York and joined Cab Calloway on Broadway to jumpstart an international career. CMC bandleader C. Q. Price also said no to a job with Count Basie because he didn’t think the band was going to make the big time. (He later joined the Count’s saxophone section in 1946 and also wrote and arranged for the band.) And where else could you learn that hardworking union bands in the 1930s played McVan’s nightclub on Niagara Street seven nights a week, three shows a night, with the last show starting at 3 a.m.?
Whether to find out more about the musical life of Buffalo’s black community in the early twentieth century or simply the going rate for a pig’s foot and a bottle of beer, anyone with a passing interest in jazz history will be richly rewarded at the Colored Musicians Club Jazz Museum.
Jazzing it up on the escarpment
Twelve thousand years ago, if you wanted to see a big waterfall, you had to come to Lewiston, the birthplace of Niagara Falls before it eroded the escarpment some seven miles upriver to its current locale. The big cliff is still there next to Artpark, but today most folks come to Lewiston in the summer for the jazz festival. In fact, the inspiration for the festival in the village was the demise of the Labor Day weekend jazz festival at Artpark; what began as an afternoon festival eleven years ago is now a two-day affair with a $135,000 budget, corporate sponsors, a twenty-member board of directors, and 150 musicians who attract up to 40,000 jazz fans and other folks who just want to take a break from Facebook for the day.
Over the years, music director Ron Corsaro has booked the likes of Kurt Elling, Mark Murphy, and John Pizzarelli as Saturday night headliners. This year, the Historic Lewiston Jazz Festival will be held on August 24 and 25 and Saturday night’s headliner will be pianist and vocalist Diane Schurr, a powerhouse performer and two-time Grammy winner who has worked with Count Basie, Stan Getz, Maynard Ferguson, Quincy Jones, and many other musical icons. That evening will also feature another Basie alumnus, percussionist Rich Thompson—the Eastman School of Music professor of jazz studies and acclaimed jazz drummer—with his band of cookers.
Six years ago, pianist Cyrus Chestnut joined vocalist Kevin Mahogany for an unforgettable concert at the Albright-Knox. On Friday the 24th, Chestnut brings his artistry and his trio to the main stage at the Lewiston festival. Preceding the piano maestro will be the Sicilian Jazz Project, which oddly enough hails not from Buffalo’s West Side but from Toronto. Imagine Django Reinhardt playing a blend of Sicilian folk music, jazz, blues, and chamber music with wind instruments and percussion and you’ve got the idea of this Juno Award-nominated band. Another Lewiston headliner will be singer and trumpeter Joe Grandsden, a New York native now based in Atlanta whose resonant baritone voice, hip phrasing, and terrific trumpet chops lead an all-star trio.
But the great majority of the Lewiston weekend will be filled with the music of the area’s own prodigious jazz talent playing in the courtyards, porches, gardens, and stages scattered across the main drag of the charming village. For cultural diversion, there’s also the annual lineup of gleaming classic cars, a jewelry show, culinary samplings, and wine tastings throughout the two-day festival. After July 1, you can download the entire festival lineup and music venues at www.lewistonjazz.com.
Phil Nyhuis is a freelance writer, author, and jazz musician living in Buffalo’s West Village.