By Tom Travis
Mother Nature turned up the heat and local and regional and national musicians turned up the jazz this weekend as the 38th Flint Jazz Fest returned to where it was born – Flint’s Riverbank Park.
After several years of being bounced around Flint, the Jazz Fest in the heart of downtown seems to hit the right vibe. The crowds were small to begin with but by the Saturday night and Sunday night performances, the Riverbank amphitheater was near capacity seating. Flint’s jazz fans were ready for some jazz.
Greg Fiedler, CEO and president of the Greater Flint Arts Council, organizers of the Jazz Fest, said he was thrilled to have the Jazz Fest back in Riverbank Park. He also said he was happy about the ticket prices offered.
“We feel we’ve found a good platform at $10 per day and $25 for the weekend, it’s cheap,” he said, adding that if you were to go see any of these headline performers at a concert, tickets would be $70 and up. He said his whole GFAC staff was present to help run the Jazz Fest plus more than 30 volunteers.
Fiedler mentioned he hopes to have better utilities, water and electricity services, next year. Water service had to be provided by special connection to a fire hydrant on Saginaw Street and the expected electrical hook up for the festival from UM-Flint failed and they had to, in jazz style, improvise. The hum of generators could be heard all around the jazz fest, not the best accompaniment to the soothing sounds of blues and jazz.
Nonetheless, it seemed both the musicians and the audience liked it.
Flint’s own musician John Hill, for example, participated this year. Hill has played jazz for 20 years in the area and at the Flint Jazz Fest four or five times.
“Riverbank Park is a great place because it brings everybody together and it brings people from out of town, from Detroit,” Hill said. “There are musicians from all over the state that love to come to the Flint Jazz Fest.”
Well known Detroit trumpeter John Douglas, a frequent guest soloist at Tuesday night Jazz at Soggy Bottom bar in Flint, joined Hill onstage for their performance with singer Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill. Douglas said this was his first time playing in Flint’s Jazz Fest.
Flint resident Lorene Randall said, “I’ve been coming to the Flint Jazz Fest for several years now.” Randall said one of her favorite parts of the jazz fest is seeing all the people come out and supporting their hometown. “My husband was a musician and my son is on the stage playing the keyboard now.”
Fenton residents Beth Horowitz and Charlene Johnson made a special trip to Flint just for the Jazz Fest.
“It’s wonderful music– it just makes you happy. And it’s inexpensive admission for such great entertainment,” Horowitz said. Horowitz added an idea to increase attendance: “They should offer $20 weekend pass if you bring a friend for free.”
Johnson, on her first visit to Flint’s Jazz fest, said she and Horowitz had difficulty navigating through downtown Flint to find the location. But she said, “I feel safe. And people have been very helpful.”
Kettering University professor Ben Pauli of Flint first visited Flint’s Jazz Fest in 2015 after moving to Flint from New Jersey. Pauli was joined by his son Julian, 7, and Flynn, 1. Flynn especially seemed to enjoy the festival, spending most of his time dancing to the sounds of jazz.
Flint favorite Gwen Pennyman-Hemphill greeted the audience with her one of her signature beautiful gowns and cheerful expressions of love.
“It’s all about love y’all!” she exclaimed, with the audience chanting back “yes!” and agreeing in applause. Pennyman-Hemphill knows how to engage her audience with her many expressions and vibrant performances.
While most had to pay to enter the amphitheatre portion of Riverbank Park, there were many other jazz fans enjoying riparian versions of the jazz fest on the other side of the Flint River. At times nearly a hundred or more fans were there, listening in to the sounds of jazz echoing out over the river.
No backpacks filled with snacks from home were allowed but area food vendors were on hand to satisfy the appetites of jazz lovers. You could smell food cooking in hot oil as Christ the King Catholic Church had fryers and cookers set up offering a menu of cat fish and seasoned french fries.
The Jazz Fest was MC’d by local jazz radio personalities David Jones aka “St. David” and Will McNeal aka “Will ‘da Thrill” from WOWE 98.9. Jones hosts a jazz show from 12 to 2 on Sundays and McNeal hosts a jazz show from 2 to 5 on Sundays. “St. David” and “Will ‘da Thrill” had a great camaraderie with each other. These two were fun to watch as they warmed up a sweating crowd for some hot jazz.
During a brief downpour Sunday afternoon, just before the 7 p.m. headline performance began, Congressman Dan Kildee and family sought shelter from the rain like many others next to the UM-Flint’s = Riverfront Banquet Center building.
Kildee said he was happy to be at Flint’s Jazz Fest. He said he attends every year. His brother- in-law had just finished playing the piano on stage with The People’s Jazz Band.
EVM staff asked the congressman about his thoughts on the upcoming Flint Mayor’s race. Kildee said, “The best outcome for any election happens when a lot of people come out and vote. That’s always best.” He added, “From my personal experience of being in local politics, the mayoral candidates don’t want the congressman to comment.”
Also seeking shelter from the brief downpour was the Hon. Judge Duncan Beagle. Beagle said his dad played the bass–and each year as he listens to the jazz at the festival he has fond memories of his dad playing the bass.
The three headline performers each hit the stage at 7 p.m. on Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights. Banda Magda, an international group in every sense (www.bandamagda.com) performed on Friday night to the festival’s smallest evening crowd. They sing in six different languages and use imagery and tales from various cultures to capture the audience and musically transport them to distant places.
World renowned jazz saxophonist Najee (www.najeeofficial.com) wowed the audience Saturday night with a powerful performance of his own fusion of R&B and jazz.
Sunday night guests were treated to the moving sounds of guitarist Tim Bowman (www.timbowman.com). Bowman and saxophonist Randy Scott at one point moved off the stage while continuing to play their instruments and join the audience seated in Riverbank’s amphitheater.
Bowman connected with the audience by sharing a personal touch, performing a sweet song called “Smile” that he said he wrote for his wife about 18 years ago after she came home from having a bad day.
The Flint Jazz Fest is a great festival for the city. The atmosphere is relaxed and chill. It seems everyone is in the heart of the summer vibes and ready to enjoy sultry bluesy jazz music.
This year’s evening live performances by professional musicians were powerful musical moments, with many audience members moving to the vibes either in their seats with arms raised or on their feet. Flint loves quality passionate music. The love and goodness of Flint can be felt in the heart of Flint at Jazz Fest.
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to correct a misspelled name. Radio personality “St. David” is David Jones, not David James. So sorry!
EVM Staff Writer Tom Travis can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.