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In these tough times, the Savannah Jazz Festival still delivers the goods
Mose Allison

“Jazz doesn’t need to be something we listen to one week a year here in town,” says Skip Jennings. “So I think anything that increases the love of jazz, and the knowledge of it, among the people of this area is a good thing.”

Jennings, a member of the Coastal Jazz Association board of directors, is talking about the 2009 Savannah Jazz Festival, which starts this week and runs for seven days (eight when you count the last day, the Savannah Youth Jazz Festival).

He’s been the onstage emcee since the 1987 edition.

Although the event is a 28-year tradition, since 2003 it’s had competition in the form of the Savannah Music Festival, which tends to bring bigger names to town.

Jennings points out that the two festivals often collaborate on shows and special events. “I think,” he concludes, “the Savannah Music Festival has been good for the jazz festival.”

 That being said, the CJA – the jazz festival’s indulgent parent - does extraordinary work in keeping the flame of jazz alive, through monthly concert and club performances.

And while the Savannah Music Festival certainly brings in the big-name acts, its focus is not squarely on jazz music. And it all happens over a prescribed period of days in the spring.

And the tickets aren’t cheap.

In comparison, the Savannah Jazz Festival is, and has always been, free. Which goes a long way in explaining its extraordinary two-decades-and-change success rate.

This year’s headliner is the legendary Mose Allison, the Mississippi-born, piano-playing one-man bridge between jazz and blues. Allison, who’ll play (with local legend Ben Tucker on standup bass) Sept. 24 at Forsyth Park, is the author of the Yardbirds classic “I’m Not Talking,” plus “Young Man Blues” (the Who) and “Parchman Farm” (every late ‘60s hippie-blues band known to man).

Van Morrison once cut an entire album of Allison’s tunes, Tell Me Something: The Songs of Mose Allison.

Other highlights of the 2009 event:

Grace Kelly (not THAT Grace Kelly, she’s been dead for years, and to the best of anyone’s recollection was never photographed with a saxophone). This Grace Kelly is a 17-year-old sax player from Massachusetts, born to Korean parents and the youngest musician in history to complete the four-year Jazz Studies certificate program at New England Conservatory’s prep school.

Ben Riley. One of the great drummers of the hard-bop world, the Savannah-born Riley is best known for his long and fruitful association with the brilliant pianist Thelonius Monk in the 1960s. He played with Alice Coltrane and Ron Carter after that, and in the 1980s formed Sphere with Buster Williams and Kenny Barron. His band for the festival includes guitarist Jim Hall.

Longineau Parsons. A master trumpeter and cackling chef over a bubbling cauldron of jazz, Afro-Caribbean rhythms and tribal beats, Parsons is a fascinating character, and will perform with his “Flight of the Vultures” band.

Coastal Jazz Association All-Stars. Here you’ll witness the brilliance of the Hostess City’s jazz royalty, including vocalist Huxsie Scott, drummer Ben Riley, trombonist Teddy Adams, saxophonists George Harper and Eddie Pazant and, most importantly, bass legend Ben Tucker, Savannah’s most well-known – and vocal - jazz ambassador.

 Savannah Jazz Orchestra. Oliver Nelson conducts a swingin’ 16-piece Big Band, featuring the great alto sax player Doug Carn. This group of freelance musicians is always a jazz festival highlight.

Film screening: “The Jazz Baroness.” A BBC production, this is a documentary about Baroness Pannonica “Nica” de Koenigswarter, an extremely moneyed Brit who fell in love with American bebop and ultimately became one of its patron saints, entering into a lengthy symbiotic friendship with Thelonius Monk, Charlie Parker and Charles Mingus, among others. Oscar winner Helen Mirren reads from Nica’s letters and diaries, and the film includes interviews with friends, family and students of the musicians served by this eccentric woman.

Howard Paul. A great electric jazz guitarist who works often with the core musicians of the CJA, Paul is also part of the house band at the Jazz Corner in Hilton Head, the closest thing Savannah has to a full-time jazz club.

 Jennings admits there aren’t a lot of “name recognition” artists on this year’s roster. Chalk it up to the economy.

Fundraising, he says, “has been much more difficult this year. Businesses are laying off people left and right; how can they justify, to the employees that they’re laying off, that they’re also pumping money into a free music festival?

“I understand that a lot of businesses’ first loyalty has got to be trying to keep people on the job as long as they can.”

The CJA board took a good long time deciding how best to spent the money they did have for 2009.

“We’ve had to try and do as much with less this year,” says Jennings. “We have this debate sometimes: Do the names mean as much to those of us who aren’t aficionados? The fact that we don’t have a Rasheed Ali on the bill this year, or a David ‘Fathead’ Newman, or a Donald Harrison, does that really make a difference to most of the people out there? Or does it only make a difference to the real hardcore jazz fans?”

Hey, you gotta do what you gotta do. “I think we’ve got a real quality lineup this year.”


All events are free. Details at (912) 675-5419 or

Sept. 20 -- 5 p.m. Kick-off Jam Session at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ

Sept. 21 -- 7 p.m. film screening “The Jazz Baroness” at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ

Sept. 22 -- 7 p.m. Performance: Howard Paul at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ

Sept. 23 -- 7 p.m. Performance: International Groove Conspiracy, the Fly Cats, Longineau Parsons & Flight of the Vultures, at Armstrong Atlantic State University Fine Arts Auditorium

Sept. 24 -- 7 p.m. Performance: Eric Culberson Blues Band, Shane Pruitt Group, Mose Allison with Ben Tucker, at Forsyth Park

Sept. 25 -- 7 p.m. Performance: Savannah Arts Academy SkyLite Jazz Band, Groove 8, UNF Jazz Ensemble with Ed Calle. After-festival jam at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ.

Sept. 26 -- 3 p.m. Performance: The Jazz Corner All-Stars, J.B. Scott’s Swingin’ All-stars, Coastal Jazz Association Hall of Fame All Stars, Grace Kelly, Ben Riley Trio featuring Jim Hall, Savannah Jazz Orchestra featuring Doug Carn, at Forsyth Park. After-festival jam at Blowin’ Smoke BBQ.

Sept. 27 -- 3 p.m. Performance: Savannah Youth Jazz Festival with Savannah Arts Academy SkyLite Jazz Band, Coastal Jazz Association All-Stars, at Forsyth Park