Mining Music and Meaning in Maine: The Deer Isle Jazz Festival

photo: Jim McGuire
Clarinetist Evan Christopher headlines the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on July 31/ photo: Jim McGuire

I’m off for Maine tomorrow morning, where, for the past 15 years, I’ve curated the Deer Isle Jazz Festival on a gorgeous spot off the Down East coast (for tickets, go here).
From the start, this has been a labor of love for me, and an act that resonates with the themes and purpose of my writing. (That backstory is a long story; you can find it  here.)
The Stonington Opera House, where the concerts are held, reminds me a little of Manhattan’s Village Vanguard, in that it is an acoustically charmed space. Like the Vanguard, it has a history. Through more than a century, it has served, at various points, as dance hall, vaudeville theater, and high school basketball arena. And, not unlike the Vanguard, there’s a sense of unadulterated mission. The nonprofit organization that hosts the event, Opera House Arts, sells T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan: “Incite Art. Create Community.”
This year, as I travel, I’ll bring along a manuscript in process for a book that began as simply a document of “the fight for New Orleans jazz culture since the flood, and what it means”—a storyline and mission that has been the dominant thread of my work for the past decade.
Yet the book has grown into something broader.
I’m now aiming to set that decade-long story of a struggle for and reawakening of New Orleans jazz culture alongside what I position as a rebirth of this country’s broader jazz culture, which is has long been based in New York City. In that way, I intertwine two stories of resilience in the face of challenges and of rebirth—one in New Orleans, in the wake of literal devastation, and one in New York, in spite of pronouncements of jazz as dead or stuck in a holding pattern.
It occurred to me that my dual headliners for this year’s Deer Isle Jazz Festival—pianist Geri Allen and clarinetist Evan Christopher— —personify those ideas.
On Friday July 31, Evan Christopher will lead his Clarinet Road band. Along with him on clarinet, the quintet includes two leading New Orleans musicians: drummer Shannon Powell, a hometown hero who embodies the entire history of New Orleans drumming with fleet technique and soulful groove; and Don Vappie, whose superior musicianship on bass and banjo is anchored in his Creole heritage.
Christopher moved from his native California to New Orleans in 1994. He immersed himself in deep study of what he calls “a clarinet language,” developed in New Orleans a century ago and that, while essential to that city’s traditional jazz, “is really the basis for a world music that can embrace any influences,” he says. After the 2005 floods that resulted from the levee breaks following Hurricane Katrina, Christopher relocated to Paris for a few years. Since his return to New Orleans, he has been dedicated to “being an ambassador” for the presentation and refinement of the language and the city he fell in love with decades ago.
Christopher is an articulate advocate for the primacy of jazz culture in New Orleans. He is equally articulate when expressing the uneasy irony that, although the music may be celebrated, those who create and perpetuate it don’t always get the respect they are due. “In New Orleans, the music community has arguably been in a cultural crisis for two or three generations,” he told me. “We have staved off cultural annihilation by embracing fictions in harmony with the tourism machine and smiled upon by the ‘New Right’ and their fetish for nostalgia. Post-Katrina, our community’s leadership was nowhere to be seen and before half of our city had returned, 80% of us came back with hat in hand. The utterance of ‘jazz,’ which should have represented a true strategy of transformation or an answer to revitalization, quickly became an empty slogan hung from streetlamps.” Still, Christopher is, I’d argue, among the more forceful voices advancing a strategy of transformation that may yet take hold.
Geri%20AllenOn Saturday, August 1, Geri Allen will present an evening of solo piano at the Deer Isle Jazz Festival.
When the story of jazz since the 1980s is told, Allen will show up in nearly every chapter. She has contributed memorably to the catalogs of several towering figures, including alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and the late singer Betty Carter. She has worked on equal footing with nearly every standard-bearing bassist-drummer tandem (she hosted one of the last sessions to pair drummer Tony Williams with bassist Ron Carter). As I wrote in a Wall Street Journal piece about her: “The profile Allen has carved through her 20 recordings as a bandleader isn’t well conveyed by catchphrases for innovations, substyles or trends. Her music is, by turns and often within a single tune, at once classic and subversive. It doesn’t adhere to any jazz convention or school; rather it absorbs them all, sounds complete.”
Allen as returned to the University of Pittsburgh, where she did her graduate study, and now serves as Director of Jazz Studies. In between, she spent 30 years invigorating New York City’s jazz scene, first among the brightest up-and-comers within a so-called “jazz Renaissance” and eventually as one of its reigning masters.
As I wrote in this year’s jazz festival program:

When I was coming of age as a music critic and journalist, jazz seemed caught in tug of war between its past and its future, between tradition and innovation. It was also almost exclusively a man’s game onstage. Geri Allen’s brilliance as a pianist, composer, bandleader and band member, as a student of masters and then a master teacher of students, helped turn that tug of war over territory into a dance on common ground, transmuting the influence of pianists that came before her—McCoy Tyner, Cecil Taylor, Herbie Hancock into her own vision. She elevated the legacy of the great female jazz musicians that preceded her—Mary Lou Williams, among others—and in large part helped usher in a moment when a great female instrumentalist on a jazz bandstand (or a stellar all-female ensemble, like Allen’s trio with bassist Esperanza Spalding and drummer Terri Lyne Carrington) is no big deal….
Beyond their obvious musical talents, Allen and Christopher share an approach to jazz that is based on deep immersion in legacies and pedagogies and reverence for the music’s spiritual and social dimensions. They see old and new in a continuum, not a struggle. They value community. They embrace change.


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