Listening in on ‘Big Blue’

Jazz & blues, a splash of water: the annual music fest is back in town

BY TOM CHESEK Correspondent



Joey De Francesco will perform at the 21st annual Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday.Joey De Francesco will perform at the 21st annual Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival, which takes place Friday through Sunday. uickly now: What has 10 sets of ears, stays hidden away from public view and has the first word as to when summer on the Shore really gets started?

If you guessed the Listening Committee of the Jersey Shore Jazz & Blues Foundation, well, you probably skipped ahead to a later point in the story. But it’s hardly hyperbole to suggest that this admittedly low-profile group of people has a lot to do with summer’s soundtrack around these parts, thanks largely to their work on the annual Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival – the yearly smorgasbord of tastes and tunes that presents its 21st edition this weekend on the banks of the Navesink River.

An outgrowth of the old Red Bank Food Festival, the RBJBF has transcended its modest origins to lay claim to the title of “largest free music festival on the East Coast” – a weekend-long open-air celebration that, weather gods willing, has drawn upward of 150,000 attendees to the waterfront walkways and naturally sculpted amphitheater of Marine Park.

Big Bill MorganfieldBig Bill Morganfield Under the stewardship of the Monmouth County-based jazz and blues organization, the event sounds the keynote for that time of year when local parks, beaches and bandstands ring out with the sounds of music.

As represented by Fred Reilly, the Listening Committee is not some shadowy cabal, but a dedicated collection of regular Joes and Janes who are simply passionate about American music. The Belmar resident has been a member of the committee for 10 years (five of them as chairman) and characterizes the various volunteer listeners as “the hardest workers … we’re all travelers who don’t mind going to check out an act in a live setting.”

Now chaired by JSJBF second vice president Mel Lowe and secretary Pat Arochas, the Listening Committee is charged with the responsibility of determining the lineup of the yearly festival – a roster culled from the nearly 400 demo tapes and CDs submitted by hopeful musicians all over North America, to say nothing of such far-flung outposts as Europe, Asia and Australia.

Billy HectorBilly Hector “Ten sets of ears is a real cross section of listeners,” Reilly observes of the group that averages 10 members at any given time. According to the veteran JSJBF member, the larger panel of judges makes for a real diversity of tastes and preferences – and allows all of the hopefuls an opportunity to get a decent hearing (and often an impassioned debate) among the various committee participants.

“Me, I like my swing and my funk,” said Reilly. “Other people might prefer Robert Johnson-type blues, or cool jazz in the style of Miles Davis. … It’s up to us to give all of the artists a fair shake.”

An added feature of the submission process is that none of the prospective festival musicians are aware of the identities of this year’s panel – a protocol that, in Reilly’s words, allows that “things are kept clean.”

Youth ProjectYouth Project Believe it or not, the Listening Committee used to meet only once a year, getting together en masse every September or October to hear and digest thousands of recorded songs from hundreds of musicians – and evaluate them all, right then and there.

Under Reilly’s tenure as chairman, however, the committee met once each month, breaking up into three groups and comparing their observations at future meetings.

“I wanted every song listened to,” observes Reilly, who confesses that under the old way of doing things, “Your ears get kind of punch-drunk after a while. … I couldn’t take listening to 380 CDs at one time.”

Reflecting the big-tent diversity of the jazz and blues scene – a mega-genre that can engulf and devour everything from rockabilly, zydeco, and rural field hollers to acid fusion, free-form bop and great-American-songbook pop – has long been one of the challenges inherent in the making of the festival schedule.

The event must function both as a showcase for up-and-comers and talented out-of-towners, while retaining its distinctly Jersey Shore character through the participation of such regional royalty as Chuck Lambert, Frank Fotusky and Jerry Topinka.

On June 1, the opening evening of the festival will boast a headline set starring one of the Shore’s greatest (and who’s shared the stage with such iconic talents as B.B. King, Bo Diddley, Coco Taylor, Johnny Winter, Buddy Guy and Dr. John), graduates to a well-deserved spotlight gig at the event that he so memorably dazzled two years ago.

“It was our largest Friday night crowd ever,” Reilly recalls of the 2005 set by Hector. “Word on the street was that he gave the best performance of his entire career.”

Saturday is Blues Night at the festival by tradition, and June 2 brings one of the most heavily pedigreed “blues-bloods” on Earth to town. Big Bill Morganfield – the son of the late McKinley Morganfield, better known as “King of the Blues” Muddy Waters, hits the park’s Marina Stage on a bill that also features New York’s SaRon Crenshaw and Canada’s Outsider Blues Band.

“Originally, the festival was just local acts … sometimes we would get lucky catching a national act who happened to be passing through,” Reilly adds. “Now, the major acts come in to play for us.”

One of the finest instrumentalists of his generation brings it all home on the afternoon and evening of June 3 (Jazz Night), as Hammond B3 organ ace Joey De Francesco – winner of five consecutive DownBeat Critics Poll awards – toplines a schedule that also showcases the homegrown jazz stylings of Sandy Sasso and Willie Mitchell.

There’s more youth- and family-oriented entertainment to be found on the festival’s Harbor Experience Stage, with musician and educator T.J. Wheeler appearing all three days. Music lovers both casual and committed can stake out a space for blankets, beach towels or lawn chairs on the park’s sloping hillside, and then stroll the tented midway merchants or sample the wares of some of the area’s finest restaurants and caterers.

Noting that the 21st edition of the festival features one fewer stage of entertainment than it has in the recent past, Reilly explains, “This year, we took out the extra stage and filled the space with additional vendors … we’ve got to get the crowd coming back after getting rained on for four years!”

As Reilly acknowledges, it’s often Mother Nature who seizes the spotlight for a mean solo. Longtime festival-goers recall that night a few years back when blues artist Rod Piazza evacuated a storm-lashed Marine Park to play an exhilarating, impromptu gig at the Oakland House restaurant. Then there was that dreary, foggy June night when an all-star combo led by Howlin’ Wolf guitarist Hubert Sumlin, rock belter David “Buster Poindexter” Johansen and the band’s legendary drummer Levon Helm commandeered the now-defunct Olde Union House for a thoroughly spontaneous (and gleefully semi-legal) set.

For musicians who regularly traffic in improvisation, such resourcefulness in the face of unpredictable odds can be a badge of honor.

The Red Bank Jazz & Blues Festival is just the opening note in a busy summer season of activity for the Jazz & Blues Foundation, whose other upcoming events include the newly rechristened Long Branch Jazz & Blues Festival (formerly Beachfest) on Labor Day weekend, as well as the ongoing series of Reckless Steamy Nights concerts presented on the last Friday of each month at the Red Bank Woman’s Club. For complete details, schedule updates and helpful information on parking and transportation, visit the foundation’s Web site at