Reading, PA: Berks Jazz Festival

I was standing in the lobby of the hotel, which is a five minute walk from the Sovereign Performing Arts Center, and I was looking at festival posters and magazines and remembering the last time I was here. I was very impressed with the almost college homecoming-like feeling of the festival that touches everything and everybody. Any minute now, somebody from the hotel staff is sure to give you a big red apple and a pom-pom.

This festival lasts over a week and takes place in multiple venues around town. There are workshops for young kids and venues for them to perform in. Just after soundcheck, George and I did interviews with local TV and radio—Festival lover media people. And just behind us, a high school jazz choir was finishing up their rehearsal/soundcheck singing Charleston Alley. I gave ‘em a big hello! 75 minutes go by and they are onstage opening the evening for us.

The atmosphere is special in the room when we go on. It feels like American Idol with the family and friends of all the performers nearly squirming with delight. I’ll take that every day. I find myself rhythmically gurgling out “Mr. and Mrs. Berks—Berk-Berk-Berk—Thank you Berks—Thank you Berks—For inviting me to the festival.” I continued, “I saw elephants dancing, clowns on parade, peanuts and popcorn and fresh lemonade, rides on the Midway, seals blowing horns, men shot from cannons and fresh ears of corn.” Welcome, welcome, welcome. Wow! Where did that come from? All I did was open the window. Something new. I never did that before. I gotta remember that.

I’ve been singing Moanin’ for over 52 years and things happened in Moanin’ tonight that have never happened before. That was kind of the tone for the whole evening and I’m real glad for that.

George Duke! George has once again whispered them onto the edge of their seats, then pushed them back against the cushions. And I hurry out so as to not lose the energy, and start right in with Mike Manson, the bass player, on the bass lines for Cold Duck. The drummer’s hi-hat and cross stick sound like ‘Gotcha Gotcha Gotcha,’ so I do it and pretty soon surprisingly find “Gotcha, Gotcha, Gotcha, Lady GaGaGaGaGatcha”—The audience gets it, it’s pretty clear.

“Thank you… and now a song called ‘Bahdat, Bahdadadat’, or, Teach Me Tonight,” and I ask them to remind me about other mis-titled songs, namely ‘Zany-bomp-bomp-bomp’. I found myself vigorously conducting background singing parts for George and the trio. In fact, in that regard, I was really aware that my performing was very exuberant and aggressive, and that felt real good matching the intensity of the band… Right for the situation.

I was talk-singing, “Do you know somethin’, Do you know somethin’, Do you know somethin’, etc.” the first lines of Sweet Pumpkin, and surprised myself because I’ve never done that in all of the 200 times that I’ve sung that song. To my mind then and now, it seemed to set up so well this cute little up-tempo jazz song. And then another first. A real bluesy gospelly ad-lib first verse of Come Rain Or Come Shine with instructions for the audience to sing “Come rain or shine” when that line occurs in the song…. High energy talking and singing!!

A little voice says, “Be cool, take it easy,” and I will… Tomorrow. Tonight, my gut says, “Hit it.” And I do, and we do. And before I know it, George is out in the audience and up the aisle and reachin’ ‘em with Reach For It. Ghetto Sophistified. It’s Banana-monium.

And the winner is… Berks Jazz Festival (21 years old), who correctly predicted their audience would understand all the many things that happened tonight. Contempo-fusion jazz, and a wide range of trio-combo stuff with the singer being the added solo instrument.

For me, the band made a quantum leap forward and up in such an unrehearsed, spontaneous way that I’m already planning to review these notes here before the next time with George and the Trio. By the way, I want you to know (oops! Off we go, up and away, 40 seconds down the runway and off we go to Abu Dhabi, the United Arab Emirates, first time) how important and wonderful it is to continue to have these moments of growth and newness and surprise when you’re a longtime veteran performer.

Thank you, Berks!

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