There’s a moment after we write about jazz festival lineups when someone chimes in on social media with the quip, “Where’s the jazz?” You’ll find the same salty and sometimes fair sentiment in online threads about many storied fests. The Clearwater Jazz Festival (approaching 40 years running), the Toronto Jazz Festival (31 years) and even New Orleans’ Jazz & Heritage Festival (48 years) all get flack when non-jazz artists like The Avett Brothers, Alison Krauss or Beck get in the mix.
St. Petersburg Jazz Festival founder Dr. David Manson doesn’t waste his time dwelling on the negative — and even participates in workshops staged in conjunction with the Clearwater Jazz Festival — but he does offer this observation when we ask what jazz-seekers will find at this five-night festival, which is celebrating its 10th year this month.
“Some concerts are really social events and some are listening experiences,” Manson wrote in an email. “The intimacy of the Side Door venue at the Palladium Theater and the acoustics of the Hough Hall upstairs are attractive to jazz fans who want a quality listening experience.”
And that’s exactly what Manson’s festival will offer starting February 21, when Israeli-born pianist Tal Cohen takes to the Side Door for an opening night performance. Cohen’s 2017 album, Gentle Giants, was a DownBeat darling, praised by the jazz magazine for elevating post-bop jazz while stimulating listeners throughout the album’s many moods. Following Cohen in the side room will be rising 23-year-old jazz singer Veronica Swift, a Jazz at Lincoln Center alum who’ll be joined by a quintet led by saxophonist Jeff Rupert, UCF’s director of jazz studies, on Thursday, February 22.
Friday finds beloved Bay area organist Shawn Brown in the same space doing a B3 Fury set with his quintet. The festival moves upstairs to Hough Hall on Saturday, where Manson’s jazz big band, Helios Jazz Orchestra, will back Palladium regular and 2012 NPR “Rising Star” Whitney James, who’ll share the stage with Los Angeles vocalist Chuck Wansley. Music returns to the Side Door on Sunday when a trio led by Cuban jazz pianist Gabriel Hernandez — who has collaborated with Chick Corea, Tito Puente, Ray Charles and so many more — closes things out.
Manson is also the founder of the nonprofit EMIT, which is the presenter of the fest. He says that finding talent is relatively easy, since so many great artists live in Florida or boast connections to the Sunshine State (Tal Cohen earned a Master’s in jazz performance at the University of Miami). The planning process takes about nine months, and the festival’s board, Saint Petersburg College marketing staff and others provide muscle to help execute as showtime approaches. The biggest priority, according to Manson, is finding funding.
“We never ask artists to donate their services,” he wrote. “It’s shameful when presenters or institutions operate this way. If the money is not there, then we don’t proceed.”
Finding a way to proceed has always been a specialty for the Chicago-born Manson, who lived in Miami as a child, relocated to Dunedin when he was 13, and had his first experience with jazz during a trip back to Illinois to visit his grandparents.
At first, Manson wanted to play the drums or saxophone, but a junior high band director needed more trombones, so Manson went about teaching himself before a new instructor (Otto Blankle) and his high school band director showed him the more rebellious side of jazz. Manson went on to earn his doctorate from the Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music and was a performer with symphonies in Indianapolis, Tennessee and Florida.
MUSIC ISSUE 2013
Jazz godfather David Manson
A six-year stint teaching low brass and jazz at Indiana State ended in 1989, and Manson — who also plays “a little hand percussion, flute and piano” — headed back to Florida jobless and ready to freelance. A friend asked Manson to fill in for him as part of the Glenn Miller Orchestra; he ended up spending the summer as a pit musician backing Henry Mancini and Burt Bacharach.
Television networks like HBO, Fox or the BBC have used his compositions, and local prog-rock fans adore Manson for his work in long-running Frank Zappa tribute Bogus Pomp. But Manson’s greatest achievement outside of St. Pete Jazz Festival and EMIT — whose focus is to bring adventurous music to Tampa Bay — is probably his contributions to the late Sam Rivers’s 2002 album, Fluid Motion. Rivers — who can be heard on Miles Davis’s 1964 album Miles in Tokyo — was a saxophonist, flutist and figurehead in the post-Coltrane “loft jazz” scene that changed New York City’s SOHO district in the 1970s.
The pioneering spirit of Rivers lives on in the jazz festival, which Manson finally felt confident enough to bring to life after his Brazilian jazz group O Som Do Jazz led him back to experimental music. St. Petersburg and the family of longtime SPC supporter Donald Silverberg have been supporters from the beginning, and the board puts a lot of faith in Manson to organize the event every year.
“Good jazz lifts my spirits,” Manson said. “Our operating mode has always been ‘trust us to bring you great music.’”
Where’s the jazz? Apparently it’s been underneath our noses for the last 10 years. Some of us just weren’t listening.