Crystal City’s annual celebration of traditional jazz and blues began as a celebration for a man and his bride.
In 2002, Tom Miller married his wife Shelvy at the Days Inn. Lifelong jazz fans, they had close friend John Cocuzzi throw together a combo to play at their reception for more than 120 guests. Miller said the music was a hit with the crowd, to the point where he wondered if an encore was in order. "If we did this again next year, how many of you will show up?" he recalled asking, and then seeing "everybody raise their hand."
The following year saw the first edition of the Crystal City Jazz Celebration, which remained a private affair. Miller opened the party to the public over the next two years, charging at the door for entrance to the event. But Miller, the event’s organizer, said turning a profit is the least motivation for the volunteers behind the Jazz Celebration. "Nobody gets paid, and we lose money every year," he said, "but it’s worth it."
The 4th annual Crystal City Jazz Celebration will be held at the Radisson Hotel, 2020 Jefferson Davis Highway, on Aug. 25 and 26. Friday night’s festivities begin at 6:30 p.m. and are schedule to end at midnight. Saturday evening begins at 6 p.m. and continues to an jam session featuring all the musicians "left in the building" around the midnight hour. Tickets are $65 per night and are available at the door or through online ordering on www.crystalcityjazz.com. Food and drink are available from the bar and restaurant inside the hotel.
MILLER SAID the celebration is a way to preserve the legacy of what he calls "classic jazz."
"Most people don’t understand the term," he said. Miller defines classic jazz as what was heard in the 1930s, ‘40s and early ‘50s — swing music with a jazz influence. "I’m trying to preserve the good stuff," he said.
The end of August is the opportune time to hold an annual event he said, because the summer festivals are over and the fall concert season is weeks away.
"It’s very quiet in the jazz world across the country. That’s when they’re more readily available, and we don’t want to use the same musicians every year," Miller said.
This year’s Crystal City Jazz Celebration features a trio of "legends" along with a collection of veteran local performers and one special out of town guest.
Houston Person, an internationally acclaimed tenor saxophone player, is scheduled to perform both nights of the celebration. He’ll lead a set on Friday night at 11 p.m. and at 10:50 on Saturday night. Person, a South Carolina native, has captured several prominent jazz awards throughout an illustrious solo career that began in 1961, including two nominations for recordings in the Best Jazz Vocal GRAMMY Award category.
Barbara Morrison will only appear in Friday night’s concert due to a gig in Santa Monica, Calif. the following night, but the soulful singer, who is in her 30th year of performing, promises to make an impression. The Michigan native has performed with everyone from Dizzy Gillespie and Ray Charles to Joe Sample and Keb’ Mo, and is as memorable belting out traditional blues as she is traditional gospel. Morrison hits the stage at 8:50 p.m. on Friday night.
Drummer Eddie Locke is the third of the celebration’s "legendary" performers. Miller met Locke on a jazz cruise some years ago, and later learned the drummer’s claim to fame: he was the youngest musician pictured in Art Kane’s classic 1958 photograph "A Great Day in Harlem," which featured some of the living legends of jazz at the time.
Locke went on to become an accomplished musician and a respected teacher to young musicians. "His heart is as big as anything, and he gives as much as he can," said Miller.
Locke will play throughout the two days.
ONE MUSICIAN MAKING her East Coast debut at the Crystal City Jazz Celebration is trumpeter Bria Skonberg, a 21-year-old musician from British Columbia. She’s the leader of an all-girl jazz band called Mighty Aphrodite, and has played up and down the West Coast for the past few years. Miller said the farthest East she’s traveled is Texas before heading to the jazz celebration.
The next generation of jazz greats is to whom Miller said the annual Crystal City event is dedicated. He wants the event to promote classic jazz, support local artists and provide a venue for young bands to demonstrate their artistry and learn from the professionals who come to the annual concert.
"I never want to make money," said Miller, "but I’d like to break even."