Thousands filled High Point’s Festival Park this weekend to enjoy a variety of jazz, rhythm and blues next to the picturesque lake Oak Hollow lake for the 7th annual John Coltrane International Jazz and Blues Festival. The event, hosted by Dyana Williams and The Friends of John Coltrane, a group designed to preserve and celebrate the life and music of John Coltrane.
The two-night event kicked off with the John Coltrane Youth Jazz Workshop Band. Traditionally, the workshop band opens the festival. The Workshop Band is made up of rising 7th through 12th graders, offering them an introduction to jazz history and jazz theory in a city where Coltrane lived and played himself. The annual summer camp is sponsored by the High Point Arts Council and led by Wally West, administrative director and member of the Piedmont Triad Jazz Orchestra and the Director of Jazz Studies at Gardner- Webb University.
Matthew Whitaker took the stage shortly after that. The blind musical prodigy, who’s often compared to a mini Stevie Wonder, captured your hearts with selections from his debut album Outta The Box and covers of some of the jazz classics. The smooth and melodic sounds from his piano showed maturity beyond his years.
At one point the 15-year-old invited another guest artist, Alexis Morrast, on stage to sing while he played, showing that future of jazz is quite bright with the pair in the equation.
Robert Randolph and the Family Band jazzed up the festival. Randolph, who is known for his steel guitar technique, brought the crowd to their feet with his mix of rock and roll, funk and jazz. The crowd continued dancing when Eddie Palmieri and his band took the stage to play a few salsa, Latin and Afro-Caribbean hits that he’s known around the world for.
While both jazz legends Gerald Albright and Jonathan Butler both performed separately, the highlight of Saturday night was when both acts took to the stage together. Butler has proven in the past that he and his guitar are a force to be reckoned with but accompanied with Albright and his skills on the saxophone, the duo had the crowd rocking in their seats and standing to their feet. The pair offered up the traditional R&B and jazz for attendees.
Sunday’s show kicked off with a local group jazz group, Gate City Diva’s, out of Greensboro, followed by Morrast. The 16-year-old, who hails from New Jersey, has an album coming out called Introducing Alexis Morrast! and has recently returned from Cape Town, South Africa. At her age, her singing is already being compared to Sarah Vaughn, Lalah Hathaway, Ella Fitzgerald and Jill Schott
“To be here is a phenomenal experience and something that I’m very honored to have been a part of,” Morrast said. “John Coltrane was a phenomenal musician and that’s something that I’m trying to live up to be, so to be here doing this festival is something that I could never imagine and I’m grateful for the opportunity.”
Following the Morrast performance, the legendary Spyro Gyra band took to the stage. The contemporary jazz band has played over five thousand shows over the past 40 plus years and evoked memories throughout the crowd. Whenever they struck the first or second note of one of their well-known songs you could hear an audible gasp from the crowd as they recognized the tune.
That performance was followed up by Student Instrument Giveaway. Students took to the stage and parents crowded around the stage, to receive their brand-new instruments from the Friends of John Coltrane and to hear encouraging words from Branford Marsalis.
Walker Schaeffer, 16, from Clemmons, is one of the festival first winners out of Davidson County. He was excited to receive a such an opportunity and a brand-new tenor saxophone.
“I won an instrument at a festival dedicated to one of my favorite jazz musicians. He’s a legend,” Schaeffer said. “My dad has inspired me to listen to the jazz greats and get involved in the jazz community in the North Carolina.”
Following the giveaway, the festival continued with legendary jazz musicians Branford Marsalis and Joey Calderazzo collaborating to bring a traditional jazz flair to the stage before the festival closed out with Special EFX performing a more soulful and contemporary jazz.
For pictures of this weekend’s event, check out this week’ gallery.