The Avalon Jazz Experience makes its debut Labor Day weekend in Easton’s historic performing arts center. But actually, it’s been going on this time each year since 2009 – by a different name. And his name is Monty Alexander.
If you check out the 78-year-old Jamaican-born jazz pianist’s website, you’ll see a fond-farewell note headlined “All good things . . .” in which he thanks his fans “for a wonderful ten years of my festival’s namesake in Easton.” First launched and produced by Don Buxton and Chesapeake Music with a single concert, the Monty Alexander Festival continued uninterrupted in residency at the Avalon – “we had the 400 seats needed to draw that kind of talent,” Bond says – until the COVID-mandated virtual concert in 2020. Alexander completed his festival run last year.
Al Bond, president and CEO of the Avalon Foundation, says it was a mutually amicable decision. Alexander concurs and wrote as part of his farewell, “I am stepping aside and letting the festival take a new shape and a new name.”
“Monty Alexander was really important in establishing the jazz brand in Easton,” says Bond, adding, “We all decided it was time to move on and have a different featured performer from year to year.” That begins with the Marcus Roberts Modern Jazz Generation anchoring the new festival in a primetime Saturday performance on Sept. 3 at the Avalon Theatre.
In a 2014 “60 Minutes” telecast, famed trumpeter and Jazz at Lincoln Center director Wynton Marsalis asked, “Who’s the greatest American musician most people have never heard of? To me, it’s Marcus Roberts. I’m biased because Marcus worked in my band when he was just starting. But anybody who’s heard him at the piano usually agrees: He’s a fearsome and fearless player and a homegrown example of overcoming adversity with excellence.”
Marsalis may also be biased because his brother Jason is the drummer in Roberts’ trio, which also features bass player Rodney Jordan. The adversity Roberts faced was his blindness since the age of 5. He overcame it as a child, in part, by teaching himself to play the piano his parents bought him. Sightless, he bumped into it when he arrived home from school that day.
Besides his trio partners, Roberts will introduce 11 young musicians he mentors to bring jazz to a new generation. “It’ll be a crowded Avalon stage,” Bond predicts.
Dominick Farinacci, who’s played the Avalon before, returns with his new band Triad along with guest vocalist Shenel Johns on the opening night of the Jazz Experience. Trumpeter Farinacci just completed a residency with Triad at the legendary Manhattan jazz club, Birdland.
Also returning to the Avalon is Jon Thomas, a recent graduate of the Juilliard School and winner of the ASCAP Foundation Herb Alpert Young Jazz Composer Award. Pianist Thomas will lead his band Firm Roots and vocalist Imani Rousselle in the matinee festival finale Sunday, Sept. 4.
“We have vocalists bookending the festival with a mid-career trumpeter and just the kind of up-and-coming musician we’re trying to give exposure to,” Bond says of Farinacci and Thomas. “In between, we have the elder statesman [Roberts] bringing his trio and a lineup of hot-shot young players as his way of introducing the next generation in jazz to this community.”
It figures to be a memorable Experience.
Avalon Jazz Experience concerts, 8 p.m. Sept. 2 and 3, 4 p.m. Sept. 4, Avalon Theatre, 2 E. Dover St., Easton; avalonfoundation.org
If you’re out of town over Labor Day weekend – maybe at the beach – you can make up for missing the Avalon Experience at the next major jazz celebration in the area – the Rehoboth Beach Jazz Festival, Oct. 13-16. Among the headliners for the four-day-and-night fest are the John Pizzarelli Trio, Peabo Bryson, and Sheila E. Regarded as the top female drummer on the jazz and pop circuit, Sheila Escovedo was a protege of Prince before his death in 2016.
Festival locations: Cape Henlopen Performing Arts Theatre, Rehoboth Beach Convention Center, Bally’s Dover Casino Resort, Lewes Farmers Market, Epworth United Methodist Church, and the Rusty Rudder; rehobothjazz.com
Fifteen months after Lin-Manuel Miranda’s blockbuster Founding Fathers musical was to make its Baltimore debut, “Hamilton” opens for a three-week run at the Hippodrome Performing Arts Center downtown. COVID postponed or canceled all shows at the Hippodrome and most Maryland indoor concert and theatrical sites in 2020 and into the summer of 2021. But don’t wait until Columbus Day, or even Labor Day, to get your tickets for this rescheduled tour of Broadway’s hit historical drama set to a hip-hop beat. Although some shows are nearly sold out, as of this writing, you can still find seats for “Hamilton” from Oct. 11 through the night before Halloween. Tickets range from a $75 bargain (don’t count on seeing the whole stage), while premium seats go for up to $1,500. “Hamilton” still sells, even without Miranda impersonating him. So if you want to see it live this side of Broadway, where tickets may cost you many more $$$$, step up sooner than later.
Hippodrome Performing Arts Center, 12 N. Eutaw St., Baltimore; ticketsales.com/hamilton-tickets
The Maryland State Fair holds forth the next three extended weekends through Sept. 11 at the Timonium fairgrounds with everything from thoroughbred horse racing to the “Paul Bunyan Lumberjack Show,” from ax-throwing to swine swimming races and, of course, the carnival midway, farm-fresh food pavilions, and assorted live entertainment.
Open this week through Aug. 28, also Sept. 1-5 and Sept. 8-11, 2200 York Rd., Timonium; marylandstatefair.com
Meanwhile, the Maryland Renaissance Festival, an end-of-summer/early fall tradition for decades, opens Aug. 27-28 and runs through Labor Day, Columbus Day, and weekends through Oct. 23 between Annapolis and Crownsville. My first acquaintance with the faux 14th-to-17th century arts-and-entertainment “faire” was in Columbia in the 1970s – yes, way back in the last millennium – where I discovered the juggling-and-jokester Flying Karamazov Brothers, who were neither Russian nor siblings. Nor could they fly. But they sure could get a laugh, as they did later on Broadway. Show up, and you may discover the next Renaissance-to-Broadway act.
10 a.m.-7 p.m. on festival dates, 1821 Crownsville Rd., west of Annapolis; rennfest.com
Steve Parks is a retired New York arts writer and editor now living in Easton.
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