We’ve got the Jazz, a Charlotte Jazz Festival preview

By Dan Cava 

April 9, 2016

Jazz is back.

To get ready for this year’s highly anticipated Charlotte Jazz Festival (April 21-23), I spoke with musician Sammy Miller and festival programmer Lonnie Davis. Sammy Miller & The Congregation will team up with legendary jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis on April 21st, the festival’s opening night. While he completely embraces all of jazz’s moods, Miller’s rollicking brand of “joyous jazz” is designed to welcome everyone into the music that Ken Burns calls “the most American of art forms.”

When Miller’s band performs, they reach out the audience with everything they have, creating a unique bond between the players and the musicians and including the crowd in the music.

“We’re very affected by audiences,” Miller explains. “An audience member will yell something out and that will become a break in the music and the arrangement from then on. It’s always in motion, and that’s one of the coolest things about jazz.”

Miller’s enthusiasm for bringing the music directly to the people reflects the spirit of this year’s festival, according to Davis, herself a professional flutist.

“It’s very important that this festival is accessible to the entire community. This is why there will be a number of programs offered during the festival that will be for the entire family to enjoy.”

Sammy Miller & The Congregation - Photo by Kassy Balli
Sammy Miller & The Congregation. Photo credit: Kassy Balli

Here are some of highlights of my conversations with Sammy Miller and Lonnie Davis and reasons why you should check out the Charlotte Jazz Festival.

Jazz is for families.

Blumenthal Performing Arts and presenting sponsor The Leon Levine Foundation have purposefully designed an experience that reaches out to music fans of all ages throughout the weekend, without scrimping on the quality.

“This includes,” Davis says, “a Kid’s Jazz Club, a Young Jazz Artist Competition for middle and high school students, school visits from members of the LCJO, … [and] an umbrella decorating contest for kids to be used in the New Orleans-styled Second Line parade on Saturday evening.”

Lonnie Davis head shot1
Festival programmer Lonnie Davis

Jazz is an adventure and it’s different every night.

At their shows and at their events throughout the festival, Sammy Miller and the Congregation will create different experiences for every audience.

“Paper and pen are not our friend,” laughs Miller. “We never write anything down. Musicians should be focused first and foremost on the here-and-now, what is happening. We don’t create art in a vacuum.”

Jazz brings people together.

“This music is meant to uplift people.” Miller sought out like-minded folks for his band, and the unity of purpose brings something special to their concerts.

“We all have a similar outlook of that,” he says. Put them in front of a crowd and something magic happens. “If you have seven people [in the band] who believe deeply in the same thing, I think they can do a lot together… People work hard all week and if they’re going to pay money to play music, it should be a meaningful experience.”

Jazz is big and small (and sometimes it’s free)

Jazz lovers will be thrilled to hear Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, perhaps the most prestigious jazz band in America, when they headline two events at Knight Theater on Friday and Saturday nights. Alongside these marquee concerts, the festival features a host other events ranging from intimate to wide open.

“This year’s festival will be unique because it will not only feature some of the Charlotte region’s top jazz performers, it will also offer several ‘club’ events featuring regional and national artists,” says Davis.

Uptown visitors and residents can also hear cost-free jazz throughout the week on the Jazz Festival Pavilion Stage, and Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra musicians will be guesting at free late night jams on the weekends at the Westin Hotel’s SoCo Bar.

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra - Photo by Frank Stewart
Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. Photo credit: Frank Stewart

Jazz is a gift for everyone.

“Go listen to a Louis Armstrong record,” advises Miller. “Go listen Duke Ellington live at the Cotton Club. It is a participatory, wild experience for band members, the dancers, the singers, and the people.“

Miller looks at the joy of their own music as a way giving back to people.

“Everything is a service. Art is a service, and you are doing something that has the power to inspire and uplift people. Whether we play at school shows or retirement homes, we’re providing a service.  As an artist, I’m trying to foster an environment where people feel included.  There’s so many ways you can do that, but we’re always thinking about the audience first.”

Sammy Miller & The Congregation will be performing with Wynton Marsalis at the Mint Museum Uptown on Thursday, April 21st, and at other events throughout the festival.

More information and a full schedule of events at Charlotte Jazz Festival

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