From 2021 Arizona Classic Jazz Festival – The Syncopated Times

The first weekend in November, I attended the Arizona Classic Jazz Festival at the Crowne Plaza in downtown Chandler. This hotel has been significantly expanded from the original which opened in 1913 as the state’s first turf golf course. (What else would a golf course be made of?) The hotel is adjacent to a historic district with many trendy shops and restaurants.

As I had never been here before, I arrived a bit early to familiarize myself with the place and the immediate surroundings. For beginners, a map of the hotel in the festival program would have been useful. However, the four music venues are around 100 meters from each other, so it’s not difficult even for people with limited mobility, which I’m not, to find their way around. Three rooms were inside, and there was a covered patio just outside the hotel lobby that could seat around 50 people, plus anyone who ate at tables slightly further away. However, this site was sometimes hampered by traffic noise.

The festival has taken many health precautions against COVID. Hand sanitizers were ubiquitous, masks were available for anyone who wanted one, and mask wear was encouraged but not required. Masks were provided to anyone who wanted one. I guess no more than about 10% of customers wore them. But given the age of most of the participants, I guess almost all of them have been vaccinated. Disposable gloves were available for the dancers but I saw few people wearing them.

I did not stay at the host hotel, having found cheaper excavations in the Extended Stay suites two miles away. The price difference paid for more than half of my plane ticket. I used my bike to come and go. Bad weather doesn’t seem to be a problem in these areas in early November, although I’ve learned that there have been times when the festival has been plagued with rain and cold.

With 13 bands on the map, I spent about an hour building a route in order to catch as many groups as possible. Living on the East Coast, I didn’t know most of them. Fortunately, the festival had put a textual and graphic program on its website, so I was able to make a first recognition at home. I made all of my selections in pencil so that I could make adjustments on the spot, which I did several times over the weekend.

Guitarist / banjoist Howard Alden, who lives in the area, was a special guest over the weekend. He was supposed to accompany several groups, but when Bob Barta, a regular at the Wolverine Jazz Band, had to cancel due to a family emergency, Howard replaced all of their sets.

Several other musicians have also played with groups other than the one with which they perform regularly. These included drummer Danny Coots and bassists Sam Rocha and Steve Pikal. Reedman Dan Levinson from New York performed in Cheryl’s Vintage Jazz, but he also did a set with Stephanie Trick and Paolo Alderighi.

Cheryl’s Vintage Jazz, including some of the nation’s top jazz musicians, plays the grand finale at the 2021 AZ Classic Jazz Festival in Chandler, Arizona. (photo by Sharon Cioffi)

Opening night, Thursday, had all four sets in the main hall. These included Something Doin ‘, a Ragtime-style quartet from Queen City’s biggest jazz group; Stéphanie and Paolo, duo pianists; the New England Wolverines; and an expanded BAD Rhythm. Only the first group was new to me, although I hadn’t seen the current iteration of BAD Frankly, I like the smaller version better. They added two amplified guitars, while I prefer the acoustics.

Friday and Saturday offered nine one-hour sets a day from 10:30 a.m. to 9:10 p.m. On Sunday there were four sets, plus a gospel service and the grand finale. There was also the optional Afterglow that night, which I raced for, which included dinner and 2.5 hours of music from WYSIWIG and Cheryl’s Vintage Jazz.

This festival is essentially a smaller version of the Thanksgiving Weekend Festival in San Diego, which only went live this year but attended in 2018 and 2019. Both events had reserved seats for sponsors and sponsor access to the reception suite. At Chandler, my sponsorship allowed me to have lunch and dinner without having to leave the establishment, which is very welcome and saves time. And the food offered was very good, not just unhealthy snacks you might have expected. The food was prepared by festival director Helen Daley, as if she didn’t have enough to do to run the event. My compliments to the chef.

Like in San Diego, I saw a lot of young swing dancers at night sets in the Grand Ballroom, always a coincidence. Even the smallest venues had dance areas which were more used than what I’m used to seeing. Maybe dancing is more important on the west coast than it is on the east.

Queen City Jazz Band on the Terrace (Photo by Sharon Cioffi)

Although I have never been to this festival, I have met several people that I knew from elsewhere: TST subscriber Pat Scull from Northern California (he actually reads my columns!), my colleague from the Tri-State Jazz Society, Mike Mudry, and Sharon Cioffi from Connecticut. I also met fellow TST correspondents Shelley Gallichio and Lew Shaw.

The 2022 calendar was released on Friday; it is november 3-6 and passes for all events were sold at a reduced price. The list of artists is almost identical to this year, with the addition of special guest Pieter Meijers.

I got to see all the bands, most of them for at least one set, and several sets of bands that I particularly came to see. With a few exceptions, I watched about half a set, enough to give me what I thought was a fair sample. I have given each group an alphabetical note, shown below. Your opinion may differ, but that’s okay.

My A-rated bands were the Wolverine Jazz Band, which I hadn’t seen since the Connecticut festivals disappeared; the St. Louis Stompers; Cheryl’s Vintage Jazz, a group formed for this festival and composed mainly of Californian musicians; and Stéphanie and Paolo. I shamelessly profess a great admiration for them which was only reinforced over the weekend. They were perhaps the main reason I came; I hadn’t seen them for two years. Their shows are almost as much visual as they are sound. It is a good thing that they are married to each other! They need to be seen, whether it’s on a piano or two (and we’ve seen both this weekend) to be fully appreciated. They played eight sets, a total of about 80 numbers, with no repeats.

From 2021 Arizona Classic Jazz Festival
Dick Maley’s group (photo by Sharon Cioffi)

My Grade B bands, while that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re second-rate, included “Big” BAD Rhythm and Groovus, both hosted by pianist Brian Holland and drummer Danny Coots; We 3 + 1; the Tucson Wildcat Jazz Band; the Sun City Stomperz of the Phoenix area; and the Queen City Jazz Band of Denver.

Although the first two bands listed above are top notch, I found their sets to have too many jokes and not enough music. The expanded BAD, with bassist Sam Rocha and Pat Bergeson on guitar and harmonica added, sounded too much like a rock band to me. About the three core members – Holland, Coots and Andy Reiss – I have only positive things to say.

The other three groups were new to me. We 3 + 1 is a female violin, drums, piano and vocal quartet whose style is a cross between gypsy jazz and western swing. They are very good but as their music is not a genre that I like to hear frequently, I only saw one of their own sets, as well as their role in the grand finale with Stéphanie and Paolo. In this ensemble, their pianist Nicole Pesce put on a stellar performance.

The Wildcats, Stomperz and Queen City were all good but nothing out of the ordinary. The Queen City subset called Something Doin ‘is actually more notable as a Ragtime quartet than its parent as a jazz band.

One group that I rated C was Dick Maley’s WYSIWIG (what you see is what you get) from Florida. Dick was acting more like a stand-up comedian than a drummer and conductor. As with BAD Rhythm and Groovus, there was too much chatter, some of questionable taste. Another band I haven’t returned to was Sentimental Breeze, which claims to play everything from the 20s to the 70s, but the set I saw was mostly newer music played in a more recent style; certainly not traditional jazz.

Finally, there was Tom Rigney and Flambeau. I heard this group for the first time at the Olympia festival in 2016. In my report on this festival, I wrote that I had difficulty imagining their presence in a traditional jazz festival. But I decided I owed them another chance. Here, as at the Olympia, their set was sold out and received with enthusiasm. So, for a lot of eyes and ears, they’re doing something right. I couldn’t fault their musicality, but Cajun / Zydeco music is just not my genre and I always question its place in a classical jazz event.

All in all, it was a very enjoyable festival, which I would definitely come back to.

Bill Hoffman is a traveling writer, jazz enthusiast and supporter of musicians who keep traditional jazz alive in performance. He is the concert booker for the Tri-State Jazz Society in the greater Philadelphia area. Bill lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. He is the author of Going Dutch: A Visitors Guide to the Pennsylvania Dutch Country, Unique and Unusual Places in the Mid-Atlantic Region, and The New York Bicycle Touring Guide. Bill lives in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

Willie J. Johnson