Mark the Date: Monty Alexander Jazz Festival Returns this September

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For some, Labor Day weekend can be a bittersweet occasion, symbolizing the unofficial end of summer, but for jazz enthusiasts across Maryland and beyond, it’s the most wonderful time of the year: The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival.

In its eighth year, the Easton-based festival, returns with the sensational and eponymous Monty Alexander, along with his hand-picked selection of musical companions—all newcomers, save for past festival favorite René Marie.

The festivities kick off in the evening of Friday, September 1st with trumpeter/vocalist Bria Skonberg, described by The Wall Street Journal as one of the “most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation.” The Canadian songwriter’s musicianship frequently draws comparisons to the legendary Louis Armstrong.

The fun continues with Saturday’s jam-packed schedule, starting with a free community concert at 11 a.m., featuring the United States Navy Band Commodores. The 18-member group, recognized as the Navy’s premier jazz ensemble, will perform an eclectic mix of traditional big band music and exciting jazz vocal arrangements.

Trumpeter Sean Jones and his band will delight festival goers during a Saturday afternoon performance. Since childhood, Jones’ musical vision—influenced by Miles Davis and Wynton Marsalis—has been intertwined with spirituality. In addition to mastering the art form, Jones is heavily involved in education. Most recently, he was named Chair of the Brass Department at Berklee College of Music.

The day concludes with an 8 p.m. performance by jazz vocalist René Marie. With a style that borrows elements from folk, R&B, classical, and country genres, Marie’s body of work explores the human experience. Through her creative lyricism and sensual vocal delivery, Marie offers an enlightening experience for audience members.

Considered one of the top five jazz pianists ever, Monty Alexander closes out the festival weekend on Sunday, September 3rd. The Jamaican-born musician is renowned for his vibrant personality and musical expression that combines elements of the blues, gospel, calypso, and reggae into an energetic, swingin’ performance that’s not to be missed.

Jazz on the Chesapeake is a program of Chesapeake Music. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit Jazzonthechesapeake.com or call 410-819-0380.

Easton: Home of America’s ‘Best Small Jazz Festival’

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The “best small jazz festival in America”—otherwise known as the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival—is held annually in Easton. This year celebrates the festival’s seventh year from September 2nd to September 4th.

Yet despite its continuing success and ever-increasing caliber of performances, the festival was initially spurred by a simple dinner conversation between festival producer Al Sikes and Rush Moody, the past-president of Chesapeake Chamber Music (since renamed Chesapeake Music to reflect the wide variety of music presented annually).

Monty Alexander

Monty Alexander

“He said they’d talked a little bit in the past about diversifying Chesapeake Chamber Music by putting in a jazz program,” says Sikes. “And a few weeks later, he said ‘would you do it?’”

Although he was eager to see more live jazz music in Easton, Sikes initially suggested a single concert to gauge the community’s interest. Jazz pianist Monty Alexander was suggested to Sikes by a friend and the rest, as they say, is history.

The first concert, held in 2010, featured two shows: saxophonist Grace Kelly on its opening night and Monty’s headlining performance the following evening. During that Saturday afternoon, the two musicians fielded questions from audience members.

Since then, the number of performances throughout the weekend-long program has continued to increase.

“The response has been exceedingly enthusiastic,” says Sikes.

This year’s festival kicks off with “The Magic of Gershwin,” featuring pianist Ted Rosenthal and vibraphonist Chuck Redd. Bassist Max Murray and his band will perform during a Saturday morning brunch at the Tidewater Inn, and trumpeter Dominick Farinacci returns for a Saturday afternoon concert. The weekend closes with a Sunday afternoon concert by pianist Cyrus Chestnut who will be joined by Howard University’s premier vocal jazz ensemble, Afro Blue.

Headliner Monty Alexander presents “Remembering Jazz at the Philharmonic” on Saturday evening, a recreation of Norman Granz’ eponymous series.

“Circa 2016,” Sikes adds, laughing.

For those unfamiliar with Granz’ performance series that ran between 1944 and 1983, “Jazz at the Philharmonic” featured a variety of the era’s gifted musicians, including Roy Eldridge, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Nat King Cole. Similarly, Alexander’s program will showcase some of today’s predominant jazz entertainers: saxophonists Sharel Cassity and Ron Blake, bassist Hassan Shakur, and drummer Jason Brown—to name a few!

Not only has the amount of shows presented by the festival increased, but the audience continues to expand rapidly, too.

“I’m just delighted at where we are,” he adds.

Three years ago, the festival added a free community concert—this year brings in the Big Band sounds of the 23-piece Jazz Ambassadors of the United States Army Field Band—in an effort to introduce people to a genre of music they might otherwise dismiss.

“I have regarded jazz as a misunderstood music,” Sikes says, explaining that the genre crosses a wide spectrum of music. “So by opening jazz up as widely as we possibly can, I think we’re … showing [the community] what the music is about.”

Perhaps one of the most unexpected ways in which the festival has grown is its success. As an unwavering optimist, Sikes admits with a hearty laugh, that he believed bringing great jazz to the area would excite the community.

“I was surprised with the number of people and the wide variety of responses,” he says. “If you’d have asked me in 2010 if we would be where we are today, I would not have imagined that.”

And if this year’s already fast-moving ticket sales are any indication, the Monty Alexander Jazz Festival shows no signs of slowing down any time soon.

“We’d like to add more concerts. We certainly don’t want to crowd the festival weekend … so last year we moved jazz outside of the Labor Day weekend,” Sikes says, explaining the additional concert series that brought jazz to Easton earlier this year.

While the festival undoubtedly brings an economic boost to Easton, Sikes’ focus remains on the music. As such, his hope for the next few years is to bring even more great jazz to the Eastern Shore. And he’ll happily do so one year at a time.

“As for now, I look forward to the downbeat of the concert on Friday night,” he says. “Jazz is America’s gift to the world and the raison d’etre of The Monty Alexander Jazz Festival. The festival … celebrates tradition as well as new expressions that draw on the extraordinary legacy left by earlier generations.”