Easton—Home of America’s ‘Best Small Jazz Festival’
By Becca Newell
The “best small jazz festival in America”—otherwise known as the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival—is held annually in Easton. This year celebrates the festival’s seventh year.
Yet despite its continuing success and ever-increasing caliber of performances, the festival was initially spurred by a simple dinner conversation between festival producer Al Sikes and Rush Moody, the past-president of Chesapeake Chamber Music (since renamed Chesapeake Music to reflect the wide variety of music presented annually).
“He said they’d talked a little bit in the past about diversifying Chesapeake Chamber Music by putting in a jazz program,” says Sikes. “And a few weeks later, he said ‘would you do it?’”
Although he was eager to see more live jazz music in Easton, Sikes initially suggested a single concert to gauge the community’s interest. Jazz pianist Monty Alexander was suggested to Sikes by a friend and the rest, as they say, is history.
The first concert, held in 2010, featured two shows: saxophonist Grace Kelly on its opening night and Monty’s headlining performance the following evening. During that Saturday afternoon, the two musicians fielded questions from audience members.
Since then, the number of performances throughout the weekend-long program has continued to increase.
“The response has been exceedingly enthusiastic,” says Sikes.
This year’s festival kicks off with “The Magic of Gershwin,” featuring pianist Ted Rosenthal and vibraphonist Chuck Redd. Bassist Max Murray and his band will perform during a Saturday morning brunch at the Tidewater Inn, and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci returns for a Saturday afternoon concert. The weekend closes with a Sunday afternoon concert by pianist Cyrus Chestnut who will be joined by Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue.
Headliner Monty Alexander presents “Remembering Jazz at the Philharmonic” on Saturday evening, a recreation of Norman Granz’ eponymous series.
“Circa 2016,” Sikes adds, laughing.
For those unfamiliar with Granz’ performance series that ran between 1944 and 1983, “Jazz at the Philharmonic” featured a variety of the era’s gifted musicians, including Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Similarly, Alexander’s program will showcase some of today’s predominant jazz entertainers: saxophonists Sharel Cassity and Ron Blake, bassist Hassan Shakur, and drummer Jason Brown—to name a few!
Not only has the amount of shows presented by the festival increased, but the audience continues to expand rapidly, too.
“I’m just delighted at where we are,” he adds.
Three years ago, the festival added a free community concert—this year brings in the Big Band sounds of the 23-piece Jazz Ambassadors of the United States Army Field Band—in an effort to introduce people to a genre of music they might otherwise dismiss.
“I have regarded jazz as a misunderstood music,” Sikes says, explaining that the genre crosses a wide spectrum of music. “So by opening jazz up as widely as we possibly can, I think we’re … showing [the community] what the music is about.”
Perhaps one of the most unexpected ways in which the festival has grown is its success. As an unwavering optimist, Sikes admits with a hearty laugh, that he believed bringing great jazz to the area would excite the community.
“I was surprised with the number of people and the wide variety of responses,” he says. “If you’d have asked me in 2010 if we would be where we are today, I would not have imagined that.”
And if this year’s already fast-moving ticket sales are any indication, the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.
“We’d like to add more concerts. We certainly don’t want to crowd the festival weekend … so last year we moved jazz outside of the Labor Day weekend,” Sikes says, explaining the additional concert series that brought jazz to Easton earlier this year.
While the festival undoubtedly brings an economic boost to Easton, Sikes’ focus remains on the music. As such, his hope for the next few years is to bring even more great jazz to the Eastern Shore. And he’ll happily do so one year at a time.
“As for now, I look forward to the downbeat of the concert on Friday night,” he says. “Jazz is America’s gift to the world and the raison d’etre of The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. The festival … celebrates tradition as well as new expressions that draw on the extraordinary legacy left by earlier generations.”