New Yorkers gathered in two disparate city parks last weekend to honor the memory of a genius alto saxophonist and several performers who have passed away more recently, at the 10th annual Charlie Parker Jazz Festival.
There were fears it might also be the last such festival because of post-Sept. 11 funding cuts in the Big Apple.
The festival began rather low-key at Tompkins Square Park in lower Manhattan's "Alphabet City" neighborhood, once rough and tumble but now on the verge of some area gentrification. The park is right across the street from 151 Avenue B, once the home of Charlie Parker, and since renamed by the city as Charlie Parker Place.
Three years ago, the festival added a Saturday component uptown in Harlem's Marcus Garvey Park. That event has grown steadily as well, and this year featured trumpeter Ray Vega's Latin jazz sextet, bassist Earl May's band with Cecil Payne, Houston Person's quartet, singer Jimmy Scott and pianist Hank Jones' trio plus saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess.
Sunday's finale at Tompkins Square, hosted as usual by longtime New York jazz broadcaster Phil Schaap, was about the music, particularly tunes associated with Parker or some of the jazz greats who've died in the past year, including singer Etta Jones and bassist Ray Brown.
There's a bit more pressure when the first alto sax player takes the stage on Sunday. This year it was Jon Gordon, who was the 1996 winner of the Thelonious Monk International Jazz Competition. He raised the bar and added some much-needed fire when he joined drummer Jimmy Cobb's Mob for the last two tunes of the band's opening set.
The clear surprise of the day was the rhythmically charged young band of drummer Winard Harper, featuring Patrick Rickman on trumpet and shakere, tenor player Brian Horton, percussionist Kevin Jones, pianist Jeb Patton and bassist Nori Shiota. They were briefly joined by singer Carrie Smith and teenaged vibraphonist Derrick Barker.
Alto saxophonist Greg Osby's more modernistic quartet refocused on Parker--associated tunes -- and lit a musical fire when tenor player Joe Lovano joined the leader onstage for a rousing version of "Ornithology," a classic bebop tune by Bird, as Parker was nicknamed.
Lovano returned for the finale, teaming with trumpeter Tom Harrell on what had been planned as a set by festival veteran Charles McPherson. He returned home after learning of his mother's death that morning.
It was a fine way to spend a sunny Sunday afternoon in the city, but festival director Sam Turvey said it could be the last such event in this format, unless a deep-pocketed angel joins the cause.
This year's festival made up a $35,000 to $40,000 budget shortfall in the preceding month only with some ambitious, extraordinary fundraising. Those responding with major contributions to Turvey's plea for help included singer Cassandra Wilson and Rolling Stones drummer and occasional jazz band leader Charlie Watts.
"We are calling in favors that we can't call in for another 10 years," Turvey said matter of factly. "We are exploring other alternatives. We are going to look for somebody has the same ideals that we do but has a little bit better access to funds."
Whether the festival lives on this ambitiously rest largely on one item: cash, which, as Yogi Berra reminds in an insurance commercial on TV, is the same thing as money.