On the first day of summer, June 20, the annual Elkhart Jazz Festival kicked off on a mild, sun-swept but extremely comfortable day. The brassy roar of the 18-piece Army Blues jazz ensemble on the Civic Plaza Stage in Elkhart, Indiana, signified the start of three days filled with jazz. Also at five o'clock on Friday, June 20, the Shelly Berg Trio held forth at the Patron Reception with pianist Berg, bassist Lou Fischer and drummer Randy Drake getting festivities off to a swinging start.
The Civic Plaza, open to the public, requires no admission. Five other downtown venues are accessible by weekend, evening, afternoon or student "jazz passes" or patron tickets. There is plenty of free parking and a tantalizing food court offering myriad tempting odors, plus nearby restaurant dining. Shuttle buses run from the motels clustered around the Indiana Turnpike Exit 92. Courtesy carts are available for those attendees whose step has slowed over the years, making it easier to get from venue to venue. The music is generated by a mix of organized working bands, local and imported, and by various all-star groups, usually populated by jazzmen who have worked with each other over the years, with Elkhart serving as a reunion stomping ground.
This is one festival that does not wholly depend upon ticket sales; much of its success stems from sponsorship. There are anchor sponsors, stage sponsors, musician sponsors, promotional sponsors and patron/hospitality sponsors, all underwriting much of the festival cost. And there are volunteer workers galore, eager to pitch in and help the entire city and its guests enjoy the various weekend sounds. If a jazz fan is looking for a grand musical getaway, Elkhart in June is a good place to start.
This year's recipient of the Elkhart Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award was Marty Grosz, who received his award Saturday, June 21, at the Elco Performing Arts Centre and then performed with last year's honoree, Ken Peplowski. A good time was had by all catching this dynamic duo who entertain with spontaneity, wit and solid musicianship. There were two other guitar heavyweights at the festival -- Bucky Pizzarelli and Howard Alden. Both brought their seven-string Benedettos and an endless supply of talent. In addition, Alden brought his wife, singer Terrie Richards Alden, who appeared with groups fronted by clarinetists Allan Vaché and Ken Peplowski, cornetist Warren Vaché and trombonist Bill Allred. Her vocal efforts were applauded by audience and musicians alike.
Groups who appeared last year and were on board for encore performances this year included the afore-mentioned Shelly Berg Trio, Tim Cunningham, the Taylor Eigsti Trio, the Keller/Kocher Quartet, Cathy Morris & Collage, T. Hadley Inspirational Choir, Truth In Jazz, VibeNation and, all the way from Japan, Yoshimi and Carolina Shout.
Also returning was Mighty Aphrodite, an all-girl group whose regular six-piece outfit was augmented by banjoist/guitarist Katie Cavera from Southern California. This band is as easy on the eyes as it is on the ears. with most of the ladies of the ensemble also doubling as vocalists. Bria Skonberg on trumpet is an amazing first-rate soloist, as is trombonist Emily Asher, who has relocated from Washington State to New York City. Drummer Beth Goodfellow is a delight, and she provides lots of fun when she trades her drum kit for a washboard. Remaining members of the band are Georgia Korba, bass; Claire McKenna, clarinet and vocals, and Shannon Thue, piano and vocals. Asher and Skonberg also share vocal honors. Run, don't walk, to see them if you know these women are near your neighborhood. They are very, very good.