Now in its 15th year, the multi-day fest attracts some of the biggest names in the genre, and raises thousands of dollars for Somers Point public schools.
Dedication to his craft earned Mulgrew Miller the opportunity to perform at a young age under some of the greatest and most influential jazz musicians in history. Now Miller is the mentor and, as one of the genre’s most respected and sought-after jazz pianists, is helping to pave the way for younger musicians in both the classroom and professional settings.
The Mulgrew Miller Trio is one of this year’s headlining acts at the 15th annual Somers Point Jazz Society Jazz @ the Point Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday, March 8-11. Miller’s trio performs two sets (8 and 10pm) Friday, March 9, in the banquet room of Sandi Pointe Coastal Bistro (see sidebar for details).
Miller got his start as a young gospel-rooted pianist from Mississippi who was recruited into the venerable Duke Ellington Orchestra in 1977 in New York City — at a time when he was even younger than either of the two rising stars rounding out his trio, Camden-born drummer Rodney Green and Chicago-born bassist Ivan Taylor.
“If you want to know the truth, I’m now older than their parents,” Miller tells Atlantic City Weekly during a recent phone conversation.
“We’ve been together about six years. They were young guys on the New York City music scene and — as was the case with me and the Ellington Orchestra — you hear about young musicians and often times someone is referred to you. Ivan, my bass player, was recommended by another young friend, and Rodney, my drummer, I met when he was still in his teens. He was at the Mid-Atlantic Jazz Festival and he won some sort of contest for high school students.”
Miller last remembers performing in the Somers Point area as a 22-year-old with the Ellington Orchestra, which brought him in when Bill Easley, a multi-reed instrumentalist whom Miller met in Memphis, Tenn., recommended him. Miller would later perform with another jazz luminary, drummer Art Blakey, who for several decades produced a steady stream of young jazz stars as the leader of Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers (and who also lived for years in nearby Northfield, and was honored by the festival in 2007).
Miller responded in kind by mentoring young jazz musicians as the director of jazz studies at William Paterson University, a title he currently holds along with an honorary doctorate degree from Lafayette College in his now hometown of Easton, Pa.
“[Blakey]’s a true legend,” says Miller. “He was one of the most important and influential jazz drummers ever, and he and [the Messengers] went on to produce many other influential jazz musicians over time.”
As a pianist complementing Blakey’s drums, Miller says that the relationship between the two instruments is a special one in jazz.
“Oh, most definitely,” he says. “The relationship between the drummer and the piano is very special in the rhythm section. Although a drummer is not playing harmony like a piano, they’re both playing time.”
Somers Point Jazz Society artistic director Tim Lekan says Miller and his trio is one of many major coups in this year’s festival lineup. Others performing in the festival for the first time include vocalist Venissa Santi and her Latin jazz quintet, guitarist Sheryl Bailey and her quartet, tenor saxophonist Walt Weiskopf and his sextet, and drummer Tim Horner and his quintet.
“[Miller]’s been on the wish list for several years,” says Lekan. “I’m just thrilled he’ll be here. We’re all thrilled. We think we have just an incredible lineup this year.”
Saturday night the modern jazz organ trio Three Blind Mice (Victor North on sax, Lucas Brown on organ and Wayne Smith on drums) will bring a Philadelphia flair to the festival, and Lekan says it’s always a priority to blend a local influence with new acts from other areas into the festival. Drummer Keith Hollis grew up in Atlantic City and leads a quartet at Gregory’s Restaurant on Friday night, and Horner is a longtime drummer from New York City who will perform at Gregory’s Sunday afternoon.
“[Horner]’s been one of the most in-demand drummers in New York for over 20 years and just came out with his first CD [The Places We Feel Free] as a leader,” says Lekan, who notes that the pianist in Horner’s quintet, Jim Ridl, is also a member of the Antfarm Quartet, in which Lekan plays bass. “And Jimmy Cobb [of Cobb’s Mob, a quartet performing Saturday night at Sandi Pointe] is the drummer who played with Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley from 1957 to 1963. That’s pretty significant. And he’s still going strong.”
Miller — whose first name was bestowed as a tribute to his father’s brother, John Mulgrew Miller, who died at an early age — has had over 500 recordings as both bandleader and sideman. He says he should have a new recording out by the end of the year, and will work some new material into his Somers Point set list as well as some numbers that have been in his trio’s repertoire for a while.
“We pretty much just wing it,” he says.
“We’re really looking forward to it.”
Jazz Festival Benefits Music and Arts in Schools
Like so many commendable creations, the Somers Point Jazz Society (SPJS) is an entity that was spawned sort of by accident, according to the organization’s president, Nick Regine, as was the festival that hatched it and is now overseen by it, the Jazz @ the Point Festival.
“When I was director of Community Education and Recreation in Somers Point, part of my job responsibilities was to act as the fund-development officer for the local Foundation for Education,” says Regine. “At that point the Foundation was just beginning and was heavily involved in special-event fund-raising, golf tournaments, dinner dances, etc.
“I wanted to try something different and set out to create a Chili and Blues Festival. The manufacturer of Beano was in Egg Harbor Township, and I thought it would be a natural to convince them to be the corporate sponsor of this event.”
The gas-relief king was counted in, but, due to a misquote from a company representative, for not nearly as much as Regine first thought.
“This caused me to switch gears,” he says. “I had a few close friends who were jazz musicians, so I approached them with an idea of doing a one-day jazz festival.”
Jazz guitar legend Pat Martino will be one of the headline acts at this year’s Jazz @ the Point festival in Somers Point from April 11-14
The Somers Point Jazz Society forges ahead with live music and educational programming through the colder months.
The Somers Point Jazz Society is bringing back its popular monthly Winter Jazz Series starting Jan. 19, when the VCF Trio visits Gregory’s Restaurant.
In 2013, let’s ask ourselves what we’re doing or not doing to contribute to the good, and what we’re doing or not doing to contribute to the bad.
The Somers Point event is geared toward raising funds and awareness for National Multiple Sclerosis Society and the Somers Point Jazz Society
“My first gig with Art Blakey’s two-drummer Big Band was ironically at the Berklee College of Music [where Peterson now teaches],” says Peterson. “It was a scary band.”
One reason the Cape Bank Jazz @ The Point festival has not only survived but thrived regardless of the economy is that it’s given jazz fans top-flight entertainment for a reasonable fee. That’s certainly the case with the 13th version of the festival, which takes place this Thursday through Sunday, March 10-13, at three venues in Somers Point.
A funeral viewing will be held this Saturday, Dec. 4 (from 9–11am) at St. Monica’s Church on 108 N. Pennsylvania Ave. at Arctic & Baltic avenues in Atlantic City.
What has evolved into a most popular and highly anticipated festival featuring many top-flight jazz musicians from in and around the area turns 12 years old this month.
Peering out of the second floor window of his white stucco home on East Mill Street in Northfield, Art Blakey could see nothing but sky and greenery. He used to say it felt like he was in a tree house -- miles away from the hustle and bustle of New York City or Paris. If the the late musician had peered into the future, however -- say about 30 years -- he couldn't have possibly foreseen the events that would transpire in his temporarily adopted hometown region this weekend. The Cape Savings Bank Jazz @ The Point festival, March 1-4, being presented as a multi-event tribute to the jazz legend, will honor a man who spent the better part of the 1950s through the 1980s helping to shape (and keep alive) the hard bop side of jazz. While doing so he performed all over the world, recording on hundreds of sessions and, perhaps most significantly, fostering the careers of numerous young jazz players who would become huge forces on the jazz scene themselves -- Clifford Brown, Keith Jarrett and Wynton Marsalis, to name a mere few. Although he was born in Pittsburgh and spent most of his life as a...
The Mulgrew Miller Trio and Jimmy Cobb's Mob headline this year's 15th annual Cape Bank Jazz @ The Point Festival in March.
“We haven’t had a disappointing month yet, and Dan and Sandi have been fantastic. They’ve gone above and beyond anything we could ask them to do, and the audience has been terrific. It’s been a lot of fun. We couldn’t do it without the support of the community and without the help of Dan and Sandi. They’ve really championed the cause of jazz music in the Somers Point community.”
In its first three years, the SPJS Benefit and Silent Auction has raised between $4,000 and $5,000 annually based on a $20-per-person donation, and the silent-auction sale of items donated by the community. This year’s donations include several jazz-oriented pieces of artwork.
Vezinho has co-led the Ed Vezinho-Jim Ward Big Band for 28 years. Now, bigger than ever, they have been thrilling audiences throughout the tri-state area.
The Somers Point Jazz Society has been blessed with the support of some of southern New Jersey's best jazz artists even as they support jazz in southern New Jersey.
As it has been wont to do, the Somers Point Jazz Society will host some brilliant musicians when it kicks off its fourth annual Blue Moon Brewery Winter Jazz Series this Saturday, Nov. 14, with two shows.