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Tony Monaco's jazz adventure
A master of the B3 organ headlines the Savannah Jazz Festival

For the 31st annual Savannah Jazz Festival, the Coastal Jazz Association has assembled a particularly smokin' array of musicians both young and veteran.

Of course, with such a fine and venerable track record, there'd be no reason to expect anything less from the CJA, which has been the banner-carrier for jazz in Savannah since the 1980s.

The festival begins Sunday Sept. 23 and runs for a week. And everything is free.

For that, you get concerts and jams with all or most of Savannah's finest players, in various configurations, plus appearances by Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials - a smoldering electric Chicago-blues band - Columbia's gypsy jazz outfit Swing 42, a documentary film about jazz piano legend Marian McPartland and loads of other cool stuff.

This year's headliner is Hammond B3 organ great Tony Monaco, whose work with guitarist Pat Martino (last year's headliner) is the stuff of legend.

Monaco is a world-renowned jazz player who's toured the world numerous times and has released eight CDs, including the acclaimed Burnin' Grooves, a collaboration with yet another all-star organist, Joey DeFrancisco.

At his Forsyth Park concert, Monaco will play with two old pals - Savannah-based guitarist Howard Paul and Charleston drummer Quentin Baxter.

For me, the B3 sound is such a silky sound, inextricably bound with jazz. How did it find you?

Tony Monaco: I started playing accordion when I was 8 years old. When I was 12, I was given a Jimmy Smith record to listen to. And that hooked me, man. I had a little record player that I used to play the Beatles 45s on, like "I Want to Hold Your Hand." I put this LP on, and the whole side of the album was one song, "The Sermon." Twenty-two minutes. And probably two seconds in, I was glued. I kept staring at the record. The album cover had these long black fingers, you know? And I listened to this velvet sound coming out of this little record player, and it was just like "Man, I want to do that!" I was hooked. That was it.

It's not like playing the piano, is it?

Tony Monaco: Quite opposite. I think the organ's closer to the accordion in terms of its capabilities. It's difficult to learn music, and most people who begin the journey as a musician end their journey still trying to learn it. It's a lifelong thing just to be a musician, anyhow.

Yeah, it's a difficult instrument to learn. You're playing left-hand bass, and you're coupling it with your foot. If you really ever get to that point - a lot of organ players bang on the pedals, but they don't know what they're doing. I'm actually playing real, coordinated left-hand basslines, and the feet are coordinated as well, whether it's a choice to tap as percussion, or to double the notes, or play octaves. That takes a long time to coordinate that.

Then you're right hand has to be a soloist and a guitar player while comping, and you have to learn textures and sounds. So the comparison to the piano would be the fact that it has a keyboard. The difference is, the organ you can sustain forever, and you change the volume with a pedal. And the piano, you have to constantly re-strike and you change the volume by how hard you hit the keyboard. So the harder you hit the organ, the more it goes against you. You want to develop a touch that's light and use your foot for expression. It's a total immersion into the instrument.

I've developed this technique for teaching online, and I find the more I teach, the more I need to learn. I love that part of the journey as a musician. I love learning.

Running into Joey DeFrancisco was a major turning point for you, wasn't it?

Tony Monaco: I had kind of put away the dream of travelling around the world playing jazz organ. I was divorced and raising three daughters, and working hard running a construction business. So I just played on the weekends to make extra money and have fun. I met Joey, and he said to me point-blank "Why aren't you doing this for real?" it sort of re-sparked my belief that I could.

I have not stopped. I'm trying to constantly develop new ways to make a living as a full-time musician. Because it's not like a job, it's an adventure, you know?

Savannah Jazz Festival

All events are free

Sunday, Sept. 23

5 p.m. at Blowin' Smoke: Teddy Adams' Opening Night Jam Session

Monday, Sept. 24

8 p.m. at Blowin' Smoke: Film "In Good Time: The Piano Jazz of Marian McPartland"
(with producer/director James "Huey" Coleman Jr.).

Tuesday, Sept. 25

7 p.m. at Blowin' Smoke: The Jody Espina Quartet with Claire Fraiser

Wednesday, Sept. 26

At Blowin' Smoke:

7 p.m.: Bob Mastellar & The Jazz Corner All Stars

8:30 p.m.: Swing '42

Thursday, Sept. 27

Blues Night at Forsyth Park

6:30 p.m.: Amburgey & Hanson

7:10 p.m.: SSU Gospel Choir

8:15 p.m.: Eric Culberson Band

9:30 p.m.: Li'l Ed and the Blues Imperials

Late night jam at Blowin' Smoke at 11 p.m.

Friday, Sept. 28

Forsyth Park

7 p.m.: Doc Handy Band

8:15 p.m.: Jay Stewart Band

9:30 p.m.: University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble w/vibraphonist Warren Chiasson

Late night jam at Blowin' Smoke at 11 p.m

Saturday, Sept. 29

Forsyth Park

4 p.m.: US Navy Band Southeast Dixieland Band "TGIF"

5:45 p.m.: Jazz Hall Of Fame w/Ben Tucker, Teddy Adams, Huxie Scott, and Howard Paul. With Warren Chiasson &

Quentin Baxter

7 p.m.: Andreas Varady Quartet

8:15 p.m.: Tony Monaco B3 Trio

9:30 p.m.: Savannah Jazz Orchestra with Ed Calle & Sam Skelton, saxophone

Late night jam at Blowin' Smoke at 11 p.m.

Sunday, Sept. 30

Children's Jazz Fest at Forsyth Park

4 p.m.: Savannah Arts Academy Skylite Orchestra

5 p.m.: Savannah County Day School Jazz Band

6 p.m.: Coastal Jazz Association All Stars