When the genius pianist Marcus Roberts plays at his third annual incarnation of the Catskill Jazz Factory’s Joy of Jazz festival next week, he’ll be in a celebratory mood because of much more than his success at pulling young and old talents together in a venue new to jazz: It’ll also be his birthday – which somehow plays to the idea of the mission that he’s on. “The biggest thing I’m after is to try and bring jazz back to being something that shouldn’t be in a museum, but is all about pure creativity and enjoyment,” he said. “And in the final run, jazz is all about a heightened form of communication between musicians, as well as between those musicians and an audience.”
Joy of Jazz kicks off with a special “Harlem on the Hudson Experience” Big Band jam session at the Bard Spiegeltent on Wednesday, August 6, before moving back to its homes in the Greene County Mountaintop community of Tannersville, where the Catskill Jazz Factory’s tie-in 23Ai Initiative is paramount in reviving a region through culture. There, the festival will include a Thursday, August 7 Ragtime to Swing Master Class with the various musicians whom Roberts has assembled, open to the public.
On Friday, August 8 there will be a Jazz to the Joy of Three concert at the Orpheum Performing Arts Center featuring the Benny Bernack III Quartet and the Charenee Wade/Chris Partishall Quartet, with a move of the Harlem jam session experience to the local Last Chance Tavern starting at 10 p.m. On Saturday night, August 9, the Orpheum presents a Spirit of St. Louis tribute to Louis Armstrong with Roberts and his band, plus a host of the weekend’s special guests, followed by another late-night jazz jam at the Last Chance.
Roberts, whose talent was first recognized as a blind boy back in Jacksonville, Florida (attending the same school where Ray Charles perfected his chops), looks forward to the Big Band jam taking place at Bard College’s Spiegeltent, curated by his longtime sideman/collaborator Rodney Jordan. “The idea is to get back to that level of creativity that was there in the heralded Harlem jam sessions of the 1920s and 1930s, when everyone in town would sit in,” Roberts explained. “That took quite a bit of organization, and some underlying structure, so everyone got a chance to play.”
Roberts noted that key to the Spiegeltent sessions – and the entire weekend jazz experience – is the way that three generations of players will be on hand, sharing ideas and experiences. He himself has become an elder statesman, as it were, even though he’s only in his early 50s; what’s exciting is that there are now new talents coming up in their 30s and 20s.
“Material will include a lot of standards; we’re trying to play the whole history of jazz as much as possible,” said the man who started out as a rare stride piano talent before being picked up by Wynton Marsalis, with whom he collaborated as an equal for years. “We won’t be doing any Big Band or bebop, though, saving that for the Saturday night concert. The idea is to display the musicians’ agility and skill, and those levels of interaction that exist as the very foundation of jazz.”
Roberts says that he’d long heard of the Catskills’ role as a musical hotbed for jazz musicians, both through the old Borscht Belt bands and the experiments centered around the many musicians who ended up living in and around Woodstock, quite a few drawn by the legendary Creative Music Workshops run by Karl Berger there. And he welcomes anyone who wants to come out from those scenes, both to Bard and Tannersville. “The more musicians, the greater the sound,” Roberts summarized. “And as for the life up here, I love its mix of nature and the natural and everybody doing their own thing. It even makes me think about composing…”
As is his wont, Roberts brought the experience that Catskill Jazz Factory and 23Ai Initiative founder Piers Playfair has been after from the beginning, and that Roberts sees as his mission. It all comes down to the passing of traditions, apprentice-style, via visceral appreciation, “like eating ice cream for the first time.”
“Catskill Jazz Factory is looking to recapture the original spirit of the classic Harlem jam session,” said Playfair. “We want to bring back the same level of spontaneity and excitement of those sessions, while also instilling a sense of structure and collaboration that will ensure that the residency musicians bring their highest levels of performance.”
Joining Roberts and Jordan and their band as fellow players and teachers for the weeklong residency program will be such resident musicians as Jason Marsalis, Stephen Riley, Ron Westray and Chris Washburne, capturing a tradition reaching back to Dizzy Gillespie, Roy Eldridge, Charlie Christian and Louis Armstrong. For more information on the Catskill Jazz Factory and its upcoming Joy of Jazz Week, including specific dates and venues, players and costs, visit www.catskilljazzfactory.org.
Joy of Jazz Week Harlem Jam Session, Wednesday, August 6, 8 p.m., $25, Bard SummerScape Spiegeltent, Bard College, Annandale-on-Hudson; various concerts, Thursday-Saturday, August 7-9, $10/$25/free, Orpheum Performing Arts Center, 6050 Main Street (Route 23A) & Last Chance Tavern, 6009 Main Street (Route 23A), Tannersville; www.catskilljazzfactory.org.