Jazz on the Hill, 2016

{Editor’s note: This piece in celebration of music was conceived and written before the horrific events of Saturday night, June 11, in Orlando, Florida. the gar spot conveys condolences to everyone affected by this unspeakable tragedy.}

I have a cold. I hate getting late spring/early summer colds. The weather invites outdoor explorations, but the body’s energy flags. I don’t get them every year, but whenever I do, it sucks. However, in what I call a bit of good planning on my part, I caught the cold this week, not last. This meant that last weekend I got to start summer properly by attending the annual KCSM – Jazz 91 Jazz on the Hill concert at the College of San Mateo. It’s an event I hate to miss.

In the library quad in the middle of campus, on gently rolling grassy hills, between buildings, a fountain, and tasteful hardscape, jazz fans gather from far and wide with blankets, lawn chairs, picnics, umbrellas, and sunscreen. Erected in front of the library, and Jazz 91’s basement headquarters, is the main stage. As we bask in the weather, sunny or windy, warm or chilly, we immerse ourselves in the dulcet tones of live jazz.

Jazz on the Hill has a long, storied history in the Bay Area. For whatever reason (general lameness, I expect) I never attended back in the day. Then came a pause before KCSM brought it back a few years ago. It’s been a hit ever since. Vendors came and sold trinkets. Food folks brought good eats — though this year I missed the food trucks. I particularly liked the vendor who did quilt work and had created an amazing reproduction of the legendary “Great Day in Harlem” photo.

Great Day in Harlem Quilt

But the main attraction, of course, is the music. And as a special gift, for the first time, KCSM broadcasted the concert live over the air. So as I drove over the San Mateo Bridge, I could listen to the early acts, in this case the SFJazz High School All-Stars Combo. In keeping with Bay Area tradition, these young masters could swing. There are so many wonderful jazz programs for budding musicians, and there is so much talent to be had. We here are spoiled and fortunate to have such art at our fingertips. After their set, announcers Sonny Buxton and Dick Conte marveled at how these young players demonstrated their jazz history by casually referencing past masters as their main inspiration. Jazz lives, indeed.

I arrived in time to hear Etienne Charles: Creole Soul take the stage. I heard Sonny and Dick interview Etienne while driving over. His newest is called the San Jose Suite. The music draws its inspiration from the peoples who inhabit the cities of San Jose in Costa Rica, Northern California, as well as Etienne’s native Trinidad. He explores the history of African and First Nation peoples in North America, their struggles with colonialism, the blending of these cultures, and how the cultures manifest in today’s world. It was the sort of mellow, thoughtful, provocative music I find particularly appealing and I fell into the groove quickly. One piece stood out, “Gold Rush 2.0,” a representation of Silicon Valley and the high tech era. It’s in 7/4, which tickled and delighted my tabla-trained ears. I told Etienne as much when I bought a copy of the CD, and he signed it thus:

San Jose Suite

Kinda cool. (And I highly recommend this remarkable CD, which also features spoken word by sports sociologist and activist Dr. Harry Edwards.)

Next came pianist Lynne Arriale, saxophonist Grace Kelly, and vocalist Charenee Wade performing together to celebrate Great Women in Music: Abbey Lincoln, Nina Simone, and Joni Mitchell. Introduced by KCSM announcer Melanie Berzon, the group, augmented by Evan Gregor on bass and Ross Pederson on drums, played a set worthy of the masters they paid homage to. Ms. Wade managed to bring the essence of each of these distinctive women alive as she sang their various tunes; I enjoyed her Nina Simone songs best, which she sang with spirit and decorated with audience participation. Ms. Kelly killed her axe, and I loved Ms. Arriale’s fluid piano playing.

The headliner for this year was legendary bluesman Charlie Musselwhite. I believe when “Crazy ‘Bout the Blues” host Kathleen Lawton introduced him, she mentioned that Mr. Musslewhite believes that music comes from the heart, not the head. Or maybe I read that somewhere else. In any case, he launched into a set of gritty, down home, toe-tapping, hand clapping blues. I’m a perennially geek, so my musical tastes tend to lean more towards the head. However, all music comes from the heart in the end, and his certainly did.

I hung with my buddy Jonathan during the festivities. We took breaks to stretch, to get food, to ogle over the all-electric BMW i3 — SF BMW was one of the sponsors — and just take in the atmosphere. It was the perfect mellow afternoon. Evening obligations meant that I had to leave before the final act — the San Francisco Latin Jazz Youth Ensemble — took the stage. But thanks to the simulcast, I got to hear them as I drove back over the bridge to the East Bay. More talented youth, encouraged to play an encore by announcer Jesse “Chuy” Varela and an adoring audience.

It’s hard to say goodbye at the end of Jazz on the Hill, but we’re heartened to know that they’ll be back next year. (Keep pledging so that they do!) I always look forward.

© 2016, gar. All rights reserved.

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