By Sherrema A. Bower
“I’ll go where the jazz goes,” retiree Lamont Jones, 61, said during last weekend’s 36th Annual Flint Jazz Festival, Aug. 11-13.
Jones was one of a small but enthusiastic crowd enjoying a fusion of jazz music, jazz lovers, and good food at The Meadow in the Flint Cultural Center. The event was sponsored by the Greater Flint Arts Council (GFAC). While attendance was reportedly lower than in past years, varying from about 50 on Friday to the low hundreds on Sunday, many who attended voiced praise for the event.
Greg Fiedler, president and CEO of GFAC and producer of the Jazz Festival, said he and GFAC have produced the event for 17 of its 36 years. Begun in 1982 by its founder, the late jazz icon and musician Joe Freyre, the festival has brought hundreds of bands to Flint, Fiedler said.
Rave reviews for headliners
Headliners like Johnathan Celestin on Friday, Sidewalk Chalk on Saturday, and 4 Korners on Sunday drew rave reviews from the crowd.
Jones, a musician himself, said that in the 36 years he has been coming to the Flint Jazz Festival (“every weekend, all weekend”), 4 Korners was one of the best bands he’d ever heard featured. He said believed it was due to a few factors: the band’s electric fusion of jazz, funk, and rock; their relatability, since the band’s influences included the Chick Corea Elektric Band (according to the event brochure), which is also an influence in Jones’s own music; and the fact that the band members were relatively young. For Jones, that was a hopeful sign that they would carry jazz onward.
Other members of the crowd, including East Village resident Elizabeth Taylor and her friend, Beverly Lewis, noted that 4 Korners had a sense of fun about them as they played and they invited the audience in. The event brochure noted that, while 4 Korners is “in the jazz fusion genre, they prefer to call it ‘Journey Music,’ encouraging the listener to take a musical joyride from start to finish.”
James “J.T.” Thompson, bass guitarist, and Jerrod Sullivan, said that the band had just arrived in Flint that morning after driving in from Atlanta. . “We’re young guys,” Thompson said, laughing, “we can take it.” Both said that the water crisis had not weighed in their decision to be part of the Flint Jazz Festival; just a desire to come, experience the city, and share their music. Still, Thompson said he was trying to fit in by drinking bottled water.
Chicago band Sidewalk Chalk, also garnered rave reviews with a fusion of jazz, hip hop, spoken word, and a dynamic woman jazz vocalist with sultry tones. So did R&B singer, Johnathan Celestin, of New York. The event brochure described him as “raw, honest, and heart-wrenching,” and his music was all of this and more.
The headliners were not the only bands to garner praise. Other audience favorites were Mike Espy, Flint native, Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill & Friends, and the Big Band sound of the People’s Jazz Band, founded by Freyre.
A mission of spreading love
Pennyman-Hemphill energized the crowd with her arrangements of “Georgie Porgie,” and “Boy from Ipanema.” Stunning in her white turban and gown, which she said she had created just the day before, in a post-interview performance, Hemphill described her blue collar upbringing in Flint.
Raised by her mother who retired from a Flint factory, she said she herself worked ten years at Fisher Body, Coldwater Road. During that time, however, Hemphill said that she suffered six miscarriages. Her seventh pregnancy was spent entirely in the hospital, on bed rest, and culminated in her daughter’s successful birth. Hemphill said through the hardships she had endured, she learned a great deal about love.
“My mission is to spread love,” she said. “This is not the world I grew up in; it seems that what is missing is love. Going through difficulties, pregnancies and disappointments, I began feeling like I had to guard my heart. I went on the defense. But God helped me to move on and still love. In music, I get a chance to sing that love to you.” The crowd seemed to feel that love and to give it back to her.
Why not more diversity?
“Sherrema, look! There’s white people here,” Elizabeth Taylor said, exultantly, as I, a white woman, approached. But looking around further, her face fell. “Oh, they all left.”
While this was not entirely true, as whites were still in the audience, Taylor and Lewis and their friend, Odette Jones, shared their views about the low attendance. They said that they saw the large percentage of attendees who were African American like them, and the smaller percentage of whites, as having a lack of diversity in the crowd. Taylor explained it this way: “Well, Flint is fifty-four percent African American, so it represents our population.”
However, Jones had a different take. “It’s not a black or white thing,” she said, “it’s a spiritual thing. God is everywhere, but we’re too holy to come out and listen to good jazz.” Jones was voicing also the women’s disappointment that more attendees, regardless of ethnicity, had not come.
“It’s up to us to support ourselves,” Jones said. The sentiment was seconded by Tiger Messiah, who, along with Harold Hill of GFAC, was responsible for bringing 4 Korners to the Flint Jazz Festival. “A lot of work goes into bringing quality bands to come and play,” he told the crowd. “So please come on out and support.”
Indeed, on Saturday late afternoon, I counted about fifty to sixty people. However, the crowd on late Sunday swelled to the low hundreds. Fiedler said that if it rains the first day, that takes out the crowd for most of the weekend. It rained the first and second days of the festival, but Sunday was clear. Fiedler reminisced on a time when the Flint Jazz Festival drew crowds of 2,000 a day and more but concluded, “I’m just happy for whoever comes.”
Meadow v. Riverbank Park venues compared
The venue of The Meadow also brought mixed reviews, although them were good. Fiedler said he prefers this venue as compared to the Riverbank Park Amphitheatre where the festival was held for years, because there is plenty of parking up close, lots of space for vendors and attendees together, good tree cover, and with such a large meadow, more room to grow.
GFAC also put up tents to shelter the audience from rain or sun, something they could not do at Riverbank Park. Fiedler said the sight of colorful umbrellas up all across the amphitheatre was one to behold. Others, including Rosalie Standridge of Davison, agreed. “The parking is good, since we don’t have to walk for blocks,” she said, and noted that she too enjoyed the trees. Her husband, Fred Standridge, agreed and said he enjoys attending the Flint Jazz Festival. “I’m not very literate in this genre,” he said, “so I enjoy hearing the music and about how it gets made.” Rosalie Standridge said coming to the Flint Jazz Festival for the past few years had inspired the couple to plan a trip to the New Orleans Jazz Festival for 2018.
Lamont Jones said that he hopes for the festival to return to Riverbank Park. That was his perspective on why the numbers had dropped.
Regardless, in the words of resident David Ellis, “if you weren’t here, you missed out!”
New EVM staff writer Sherrema Bower can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.