The Richmond Jazz Festival is arguably one of the best jazz festivals in the country. Once again, the Maymont Park played host to the 9th edition of this incredibly rich festival with three stages situated throughout the park: Stage 1: Virginia is For Lovers, Stage 2: Dominion Energy and Stage 3. Nestled in between are various vendors from the VA Lottery, NBC 12, RVA Black History Museum to the Bistro Court playing host to foods with flavors of the Caribbean and good ole fashioned Soul Food, and let’s not forget the merchandise vendors selling anything from original artwork to homemade soaps and body sprays. Yes, the Richmond Jazz Festival is definitely one of the highlights of festival season.
My fourth year covering this festival, I’ve enjoyed watching the evolution of this amazing event. The complete team is stellar. Each year I’m greeted by the friends I’ve made over my tenure and add to the list annually. I heard someone say, “these are my festival friends, I see them once a year.” But you know what, once a year friends are just as good as friends you see every day because you’re coming together for a common love and adoration.... music!
With the evolution of the festival, I’ve seen changes in the set up that create more opportunity for the fans to enjoy and engage. No longer are gold circle seats in front of the stage. Now VIP members sit just above the ground on a platformed seating area with tables for whatever number of people are in their party. It’s a pretty swank set up that I’ve seen with a few other festivals I covered. And the third stage is now enclosed creating a more intimate experience for the pure jazz enthusiast. What a great switch up. With the incredible heat and humidity, it also offers an opportunity for patrons to sit down and cool off a spell.
The gates for the festival open at 11am. Patrons start lining up as early as 9:30am. Yes, it’s that serious! With one of the main stages, Stage 1 (Virginia is for Lovers) having little to no available shade, people swarm to one of the huge oak trees on that side of the park. It’s prime real estate and it provides much needed coverage from the blazing sun while offering a great view of the stage and the jumbo-tron. On Saturday there was a bit of a delay with the gates opening, about 45 minutes, but when those gates opened people were running, with wagons in tow, to claim their spot. In the past, some of the more “educational” vendors that line the entrance to the park can get people to stop and take a look at the information or play games … not this year. Patrons bypassed these vendors saying, “let me get my spot, I’ll come back.” People have indeed learned the tricks of the festival circuit … Location, Location, Location.
For me, this year has probably been one of the better years regarding the schedule. The acts were spaced and timed far enough apart where I didn’t feel the need to pick and choose between two acts that I really wanted to see. So, for me this year was butter. On Saturday, my day started with Deva Mahal. Deva is the daughter of the amazing blues musician Taj Mahal. I had the pleasure of capturing him two years ago at this same festival. So, when I saw that his daughter was on the ticket, I wanted to delve a little deeper and find out what she was about. Once I YouTubed her, it was a definite that she’d be one of the acts I laid my lens on.
From then on, I was running from stage 2 to Stage 3 to Stage 1, back to Stage 2 and so on. To give you a little perspective as to how this works, here’s map of the stage layout. But this is what you do when you work festivals. You figure it out and make the best of it.
From Deva, I hiked up the hill to lay my lens on Keyon Harrold. I’ve been following Keyon for a little over a year, so I was excited to see his name on the lineup. Hailing from Ferguson MO, Keyon is an awesome trumpeter. And he’s not a light weight either, coming in with a pretty cool resume including works with Gregory Porter, Jay-Z and D’Angelo just to name a few. Keyon played a tune he wrote as a dedication to the slain Michael Brown, another Ferguson native, called “MB Lament aka When Will It Stop”. His pianist, Shedrick Mitchell, (I was too mesmerized to record him, but this other clip gives you an idea), played the most incredible solo for the intro to this moving piece. I legit had chills from both watching and listening to him. Then Keyon comes through with this masterful trumpet portion. Umph! is all I can really say. It’s a powerful piece, sure to stir something within you, whether it be anger, sadness or even longing.
From Kenyon, I made my way down to lay my lens on what I knew would be a show, but had no idea it would end up being one of the highlights of the festival for me, Dee Dee Bridgewater. Baby, let me tell you this woman... wooooweee! I’ve known for a long time that Millie Jackson had one of the raunchiest mouths ever. Now I’m not saying that Ms. Bridgewater brings that kind of raunch, but I was not prepared for what she did bring in the form of “feeling herself.” This wasn’t a kind of raunch that one would normally equate with the terminology, but more of what you may not be accustomed to seeing with a woman of such stature and grace. I have to tell you it filled my heart and made me smile. I was even yelling … “Go on now!” And on she went.
From there I made my way over “cross the pond” to lay my lens on the incredible Joss Stone. Now does that “cross the pond” reference make sense? Lol I know I’m kind of corny. I’ve been fangirling Joss since her second album, Mind Body & Soul, which garnered such hits as Spoiled, Torn and Tattered and Right To Be Wrong. For the festival, she brought us more from her 2016 Album Water For Your Soul. While some of the audience longed for her earlier work, they thoroughly enjoyed what this songstress brought to the table. After a failed attempt to get the audience involved, Joss lipped… “Really. What the fuck?” to which the audience roared. So, attempt number two was made and this time she left the stage and came out into the audience. I can only remember seeing this happen one other time in my four years and that was when Joe performed back in 2014. So, this was a treat for the audience and they received her with so much love.
Afterwards, I was able to take a little break before heading over to lay my lens on the ever so mannish, Roy Ayers. You know it’s something to be said about reaching an age where you just don’t give a fuck. And Mr. Ayers is still very much so a man’s, man. He’s entertaining and a crowd pleaser. The guys on the stage admire and respect him, you can clearly see that, as they play coyly with one another. He’s a legend and I’m glad I was able to witness the legacy.
I next set my sights on the Empress of Soul, Gladys Knight. OH… MY… GAWD!!! The woman is simply gorgeous. I mean she’s stunning. I heard a few of the other photographers comment the same. Tom Joyner frequently speaks of his adoration for Gladys and I can 100% understand why. Talk about a stunner and so gracious. The audience gave her an abundance of love and for those of us that had that prime space to capture her, we longed for a glance, a wink anything to catch that elegance, grace and love that washed all over her.
And after a rather long day, we closed the night out with none other than The O’Jays. Throughout the day there had been rumors that Walter or Eddie passed out at an event the night prior. With one act already canceled for the festival, everyone was all a clamor to see if the O’Jays would actually be performing as a cohesive group or at all. It was pure joy when I saw three mics placed during the stage set up. And then when the band started announcing them one by one, the crowd went straight crazy. The women in the front row practically leapt out of their seats with phones and tablets in hand to capture the magnificence known as The O’Jays. It was quite a view. They’ve got all the moves and are jam packed with more than an abundance of flirtiness. Watching, I was sure it was going to be a panty dropper. Lol – This is no game, the women looooooveee them some O’Jays.
Before I left my hotel, the weather called for 75% rain. We hoped it would stay at bay, like it did on Saturday; for a few hours it did. I was able to enjoy a couple of acts before heading over the catch this amazing and relatively new artist, Jazzmeia Horn. Now I was turned on to Jazzmeia by one of my photographer buds and Notes and Narratives contributor Chinita Tate-Burroughs of Nia Tate Photography. But, what she did not really tell me was how amazing of an artist she was. So, I was ill prepared from a sensory perspective for what was to come.
Jazzmeia is one of those artists who has this ability to contort her mouth. I will liken her to other “sangers” such as Ledisi and Rachelle Farrell. If you’re unsure what I’m talking about, compare the three and come back and chat with me. Draped in African print, flanked with silver wrist cuffs, ankhs and topped off with a head wrap she showcased her range of scatting, it appeared that for this particular show, she was out to showcase her band. I’m not mad about that at all. Normal course for a group is that each bandmate has their time to shine with a small spotlight, but with Jazzmeia, I believe she gave each band member pretty much three-quarters of each song, showcasing them in a manner which I have yet to see with other acts … and they played their hearts out. As an opener to the final song of her set, Jazzmeia gave us the first verse of the Black National Anthem, Life Every Voice and Sing. If I’m honest, I don’t think I’ve taken part of a rendition of this James Weldon Johnson masterpiece since I was in high school and that was more than 25 years ago. It felt good and it looked good as I panned around the room.
Remember that rain I was talking about a few minutes ago, well yeah it didn’t hold off like we had hoped. It changed pretty rapidly: the clouds rolled in, it got a little darker, the wind picked up and the temperature dropped. Before you knew it, a few drops came, and we saw the umbrellas come out and up. Next came light roars of thunder and distant lightning. That’s when we packed it up. My mom said, “I don’t play when the Lord’s working, let’s go.” I tried to convince her to wait it out and she gave me that look. You know that look your parents give you when they are not playing … yeah, that one. So, I knew I to get my butt up and go. As we were packing we saw more people heading out too. On the way to car, the rain came a little harder. We were about 30 or 40 minutes up the road when the notification came across that the festival had been canceled due to the threat of severe thunderstorms.
Traditionally festivals are a rain or shine event so once you purchase your tickets there are no refunds no matter the circumstances. I’ve been through four festivals in my time where the rain played a factor and only one of those was canceled due to a storm. The folks at the Richmond Jazz Festival are truly compassionate and empathetic to the fact that people spent hard earned money on the festival. Concerned for the safety of the patrons, the vendors and their staff, they made the best call they could have. Added to that, they communicated with everyone via their Facebook page and the app. To top it all off, I give kudos to the heads of the festival for offering, to the patrons of Sunday tickets, 50% off a one-day pass for the 2019 season. These folks are truly phenomenal and for as long as they will have me, I will continue to cover their festival and talk them up.
originally posted on my A&E Blog, Notes and Narratives, under Music