Second Annual NY Hot Jazz Festival

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One can’t even put into words the wonderful hot mess that was the second annual NY Hot Jazz Fest. Picture hundreds of people milling around a super swanky (albeit small) venue with thick carpeting and massive oil portraits hanging from the walls — that being The Players Club, founded by Edwin Booth in 1888 and originally a men’s club through and through, allowing the first woman to join over a hundred years later — in any number of rooms with music and entertainment: a ballroom with musicians on stage, people seated in a cluster in front and dancers swinging out near the bar in the back; walking through a high doorway with parted curtains to check out the rotating cast of stride pianists; walking to the upstairs with lower ceilings to sit on the floor in front of the stage or perhaps on one of the leather lounge chairs in the cozy library, beautiful bookshelves lining the walls, maybe even managing to dance on the carpeted floor there. Or, if you wanted a break from the live music, you could walk downstairs to check out the reel room, with curated footage of Louis Armstrong and other jazz heroes.

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The sheer magnitude of both the number of NYC performers as well as their incredibly high caliber was truly outstanding, and people came from as far as Tokyo for the event. The first half (1-6:15pm) — featuring Emily Asher’s Garden Party, The Hot Sardines, Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks with Catherine Russell, Dan Levinson‘s Gotham SophistiCats, Cynthia Sayer & Sparks Fly, The Xylopholks, the Scrub Board Serenaders, Frank Vignola & Vinny Raniolo, and pianists Peter Yarin, Mark Shane, Jerron “Blind Boy” Paxton, and Dalton Ridenhour — drew mostly an older, more reserved crowd. The area in front of the stage in the ballroom was lined with rows of chairs reserved for VIP ticket holders but The Hot Sardines, rabble-rousing rule breakers that they are, invited dancers to come up front halfway through the band’s set. In fact, the band even had their own dancer with them, an incredible tapper named Eddie Francisco. He offered both visual and auditory excitement, making percussive sounds with his feet even when he wasn’t dancing, and the band brought the house down. However, it’s safe to say Vince Giordano and the Nighthawks drew the biggest surge of people crowding into the ballroom. An amazing musician, band leader, and scholar (he has a house he lives in and a separate one just for his collection of records and old sheet music), Giordano is the man responsible for the stellar Boardwalk Empire soundtrack, among many other projects, and is helping to keep the traditions of 1920s and 30s jazz alive through playing and educating. He is respected by fans and other musicians alike, such as trumpeter Mike Davis who was also playing at the festival with several bands including his own. Several people I talked to mentioned how excited they were to see Mike Davis’ New Wonders, a newly formed band that plays a lot of 20s material arranged by Davis himself — a music history enthusiast and budding scholar in his own right — and trombonist Josh Holcomb, both recent Manhattan School of Music graduates. Despite the jazz festival being only their third official gig these guys have all even playing with each other in one band or another for years, and Davis has a stellar group that was simultaneously cool AND hot. There were many generations of musicians represented at the festival and it was great to see the older, well established ones like Vince Giordano and Dan Levinson as well as (so far) relative unknowns of the younger generation who will perhaps someday take the place of those they admire.

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Another young musician, trumpeter Bria Skonberg is one of the founders and producers of the NY Hot Jazz Fest and only in her 30s. She’s a definite force and in addition to organizing and hosting she played with several bands including her own, BRASS KICKER, who performed during the second half of the festival — along with Ken Peplowski‘s New Swing, David Ostwald‘s Louis Armstrong Eternity Band with Wycliffe Gordon, Professor Cunningham’s Old School with Brianna Thomas, Baby Soda, Mike Davis‘ New Wonders, the Hot Club of New York, The Ladybugs with Kate Davis, and pianists Jesse Gelber, Ehud Asherie, and Jon Weber — when things relaxed and became much more informal. You didn’t know who might be called up or jump in with who, and musicians mingled with dancers and chatted with friends and fans old and new. The crowd’s enthusiasm for the bands was much more vocal and a major highlight was Bria Skonberg’s all-star band. BRASS KICKER closed out the ballroom and for the last song the band walked off stage and into the lobby, disrupting the piano and clarinet playing in the stride room. Bria apologized after the musicians in the latter jokingly gave her a hard time for ruining their tune (how can anything compete with a sousaphone?!) and they told her she’d have to make it up by joining them on a tune, which segwayed nicely into the late-night jam session hosted by the clarinetist Dennis Lichtman and pianist Dalton Ridenhour.

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One of the greatest and most joyful things was seeing so many of the same musicians playing with so many different bands at the event. The jazz scene in NYC is simultaneously wide and diverse yet small and tight-knit. Even after all of their official sets were over the musicians hung around chatting or playing, and the music and energy went strong until 1am when the venue needed to be cleared out. However, even then the party didn’t dissolve,  instead moving to the nearby venue Mona’s where Dennis Lichtman was hosting an after-party. It was also a tremendous experience to be a part of that kind of intensity, love, and respect on the part of the audience, showing so much enthusiasm and support for all of the hard work and grit that is involved in being a working musician. The mutual love for the music evident in musicians and attendees alike was palpable and the spirit of the music lives in this. Jazz is a historical and significant style of music, but so is it also living and breathing in and as those who play, listen, and support it.

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Some videos from the event: