Godwin Louis

Into the Swing

If the 2012 New Haven Jazz Festival were a melodic line, the city name and the musical genre would carry equal emphasis.

But it hasn’t always been so locally rooted. When the festival was founded in the 1970s, the bands booked were generally big-name swing bands still carrying the torch for when the music had its greatest mainstream popularity in the 1940s, or chart-topping jazz soloists of more recent vintage (Chuck Mangione, for instance). Run through City Hall and booked by furniture retailer Brian Alden, it was a way of luring huge crowds to New Haven Green in the hopes that they would commune with their fellow citizens, then go off to eat, shop and drink downtown.

As time went on, even the word “jazz” in the festival title didn’t seem to matter so much. Except for a couple of years in the late 1980s when a genuine jazz scholar and performer, Allen Lowe, got involved in booking it, the New Haven Jazz Festival remained devoted to drawing large crowds downtown, with the biggest names available. There was no inherent problem with that, but it left other avenues unexplored.

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In a sense, that series never really died. It simply changed its name a few years ago to Music on the Green and expanded to include the sort of pop, Motown and R&B bands it had already been gravitating towards. (Mayer Hawthorne and Shontelle were the Music on the Green attractions last month and the Bodeans finish up the series this Friday, Aug. 10). The International Festival of Arts & Ideas also brings a variety of big-name acts, including some jazzy ones, to the Green every June.

But some diehard jazz fans, including members of the organization Jazz Haven, felt there was still a place for a jazz-centric festival in the city, one which dug a little deeper into the music’s history and soul. After all, didn’t Artie Shaw go to school in New Haven? Wasn’t there a thriving soul-jazz scene in the Whitney/Audubon district during the 1980s? Didn’t one of today’s most celebrated saxophonists, Wayne Escoffery, run the jazz houseband at Rudy’s Bar when he was first paying his dues?

Doug Morrill, JH’s originator, loves jazz history, and he’s willing to travel the world to see the music: he attended the Capetown Jazz Festival in South Africa earlier this year. But he’s also deeply committed to the unsung local heroes of jazz. He sees the rethought New Haven Jazz Festival as a way of letting more people hear the “innovation and originality” that can be found in area jazz venues year-round. To that end, this year’s celebration includes eight concerts at local bars and restaurants—from the Owl Shop (which is also hanging jazz-themed artwork by the festival’s poster artist Mike Reilly on its walls) to Café Nine (site of a long-running Saturday afternoon jazz jam) and a few places not widely known (yet!) as jazz venues, like 116 Crown St. and Geronimo’s—starting today.

The fest-closing Sunday noontime set by Anthony Lombardozzi at The Study at Yale reclaims a New Haven jazz tradition that ended not even a year ago; Lombardazzi led the jazz brunch concerts on Sunday afternoons for years just across the street from The Study, at Scoozzi’s restaurant. Scoozzi’s closed last October. Doug Morrill credits Jazz Haven’s current president, Craig O’Connell, with the idea of this “Jazz Downtown” club series.

Saturday, August 11 on New Haven Green, the main outdoor New Haven Jazz Festival event commences with sets by two New Haven high school jazz bands, followed by a triple-whammy of sextets: alto saxophonist Godwin Louis and his sextet, percussionist Annette Aguilar and her band The Stringbeans Sextet, and finally the sextet overseen by T.S. Monk.

Aguilar’s inclusion in the festival is a reminder of how many female and Latin jazz stars have played the NHJF during its multi-faceted history. Godwin Louis (pictured above), who’s played with a host of jazz greats in his still-young career and has toured and recorded with The Either/Orchestra, is a bonafide Connecticut jazz success story. Louis, who was born in Harlem and spent some of his childhood in Haiti, went to high school in Bridgeport. His prodigious talent was noted there by a Jazz Haven board member, then supported with scholarships to the Litchfield Jazz Camp, the Berklee School of Music and the Thelonius Monk Institute for Jazz Performance (from which he just graduated last year). As for T.S. Monk, his surname is not just legendary in modern jazz circles but in New Haven, where the 62-year-old bandleader son of be-bop piano pioneer Thelonius Monk has many relatives. Last year, Jazz Haven lobbied successfully to have a city street renamed Monks Crossroads in honor of the large and overwhelmingly musical family.

Since taking over the festival’s name and organizational duties from the City of New Haven in 2008, the New Haven Jazz Festival has experimented with a number of different formats and gained a diverse slate of sponsors, including Yale University, The Community Foundation for Greater New Haven, First Niagara Bank, Shoreline Piano (which has been running its own jazz series this year), and The Study at Yale (which, besides hosting that lunchtime concert Sunday, donated rooms for the visiting musicians). Morrill notes that New Haven’s Economic Development Administrator, Kelly Murphy, “has been phenomenal in terms of help. She realized we have been doing this festival by the skin of our teeth, and she’s committed to putting us on the map.”

It’s a map already crowded with jazz highlights—some as pedigreed as an American Songbook standard, some as hungry as an improvised sax solo—that Jazz Haven and its New Haven Jazz Festival are just beginning to chart. ‘There is a lot of adventurous new music going on in town right now,” Morrill exults. “Breaking new ground has always been very exciting to me.”

New Haven Jazz Festival
Jazz Haven Website | Festival Schedule

Written by Christopher Arnott.

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