With the Jacksonville Jazz Festival entering its 30th year this May (27-31), a spotlight falls on one of the better jazz scenes in the south. Contrary to perception of the region as a cultural backwater, Northeast Florida boasts, among other things: nationally-ranked jazz education programs at UNF, FSCJ and DASOTA; a festival that’s drawn some of the all-time greats of jazz music; and dozens upon dozens of working musicians, active here and all over the country. It shouldn’t take a blindfold test to illustrate the skills on display, on a weekly basis, but it does. The jazz musicians don’t record as often, nor gig as regularly, as their peers in hip-hop or indie rock, and that has coupled with the general reluctance of local media (television, most egregiously) to feature regional artists to push everything back. Even the splendid Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra must fight for coverage. The significant economic boost generated by the festival each year (over $20 million in 2009) speaks to the efficacy of maintaining a higher profile for the music.
All the same, the music itself is excellent. Von Barlow is a fixture in all of this, swinging in his sixties with sidemen half his age and less; he’s one among a number of people (Patrick Evan is another example) who perform a pedagogical function on the bandstand. He picks good musicians, who get better through their involvement with him. That’s right in line with the jazz tradition as it relates to drummers. Art Blakey, Arthur Taylor, Max Roach, Mel Lewis and Buddy Rich stand out among those who made a point of putting over young talent in their bands.
Barlow’s trio with Eric Riehm and Lawrence Buckner provides the best regular jazz night anywhere within hundreds of miles when they work the Casbah in Avondale every Sunday. You’d seriously have to get on I-95 and drive north for hours, passing cities–Savannah, Atlanta, Charleston, Myrtle Beach, Richmond, Baltimore–with great jazz scenes but no single group as good. Only in New York (or maybe Baltimore, and certainly New Orleans) would you find any jazz band that plays that hard, that long and with that level of finesse on a regular basis. In my opinion, anyway. Riehm is a beast on tenor, and Barlow’s broken so many sticks that trees cower in his presence.
A member of the jazz festival’s Hall of Fame, Barlow is playing two sets at the festival on Friday, the 28th, back-to-back at the Snyder Memorial Church. Von Barlow’s Jazz Journey–a larger, funkier group–plays at 6pm, followed at 8 by a tribute to longtime friend (and fellow Hall-of-Famer) Teddy Washington. The trio may also be playing the Hemming Plaza market that afternoon (10am-2pm), as usual, but there may actually be limits to Barlow’s herculean stamina.
There will be two chances to see/hear Barlow prior to the festival, as they work a two-night stand at European Street earlier that week. E Street’s a local fixture, famed for its huge beer list, supplemented with awesome beer-cheese soup an array of meat-based fare. The locations at San Marco and Beach Boulevard feature live music; Barlow works the former often, with Buckner or Ricky Ravelo on bass and organist Scott Giddins. His Jazz Journey plays the Beach Blvd. location on Wednesday the 25th, then plays San Marco on the 26th. Bonus: Barlow’s raffling tickets to the Great American Jazz Piano Competition (which is Thursday, the 27th, at the Florida Theatre) each night.