IN THE 21 YEARS SINCE LOCAL ATTORNEY Skip Jennings has been involved with the Coastal Jazz Association, he's attended scores of phenomenal concerts by some of the world's most respected jazz artists — most of them from the side of the stage.
As the Savannah Jazz Festival’s Master of Ceremonies since 1987, Jennings —an omnivorous music fan with a special love of jazz and blues— is, to many, the only constant presence at that eagerly awaited annual event. Whether thanking the festival’s many sponsors, introducing acts or prying applause from the crowd in hopes of an encore, Jennings is one of the festival’s loudest cheerleaders.
Yet, he’s also a realist, and one who will speak frankly and openly about the difficult challenges faced by CJA’s leadership, of which he is now once more a part.
So, when the first vice president himself of this long-standing non-profit organization is visibly enthused about the direction the week long Savannah Jazz Fest (Sept. 20-28) is currently headed in, it’s difficult not to find such enthusiasm contagious.
“We’re all excited about it,” he says. “We have some new additions to our Board that have brought in a lot of fresh energy, and that can’t help but be a good thing.”
Those who have enjoyed the Jazz Fest in the past won’t need to worry about a complete makeover, though. Jennings says the CJA is firmly committed to improving and growing the free, public festival — but methodically, and with great care.
“It’s not our intent to radically change things in any one year,” he continues. “Rather, we feel the festival should constantly evolve — like jazz itself.”
“A couple of years ago we were getting a lot of criticism in the local media. Not to be overly critical, but we had fallen into a very comfortable rut. They were all great events with fantastic music, but they were becoming predictable in some respects. So, we’ve tried to change things up.”
“We started last year by taking the Friday night in Forsyth Park and using it to feature contemporary and smooth jazz — and The Yellowjackets show was by far our biggest Friday night crowd ever.”
Jennings says that surprising turnout reassured the more purist CJA members who initially resisted adding that style of music into a festival that for decades has focused on traditional jazz forms.
“So many people showed up there could be no doubt it was something we should continue,” he explains.
And continue they have. This year’s Friday night headliner is none other than smooth jazz superstar Bob James and his Quintet. The Grammy winning fusion artist (who’s also a member of Fourplay) has maintained a home at The Landings for the past few years, and Jennings says the CJA is thrilled to have someone of his artistic stature and fame associated with Savannah.
“We wanted to book him in 2007, but he was touring Japan. We’d certainly love to have an artist of his caliber become involved in the festival on an ongoing basis.”
Other major names at this year’s event include “Simone”, the celebrated vocalist daughter of the late, iconic singer Nina Simone, legendary Thelonious Monk drummer Ben Riley, and —on Blues Night— Chicago harmonica legend James Cotton, of whom Jennings brags, “How many people from Muddy Waters’ legendary 1950s band are actually left?”
Other events include a documentary film screening at the JEA, and a Southside concert at Savannah Country Day School’s auditorium.
“The idea”, Jennings says, “is to liven up the festival, and bring many more people into jazz at an increasing number of locations spread around town.”