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This year’s Jazzanooga blossoms and dazzles–take it in
“Jazz is restless. It won’t stay put and it never will.” — J. J. Johnson, trombonist
The history of jazz dates all the way back to the early 20th century with its roots firmly planted in the South. The genre of jazz has evolved over time, but the subgenres remain the same: smooth jazz, Afro-Cuban jazz, acid jazz, traditional jazz and even gospel, just to name a few.
Jazz has many different layers and elements, making it a bit difficult to define—jazz just doesn’t fit inside a box. The true definition of jazz is something that can’t summed up simply with a handful of words; it’s music you have to listen to, to fully and truly understand its history and the beauty of its origins.
One thing we can be sure of is that jazz most definitely has roots in Chattanooga. Chattanooga’s own Bessie Smith, who was crowned the Empress of Blues, famously got her start on the streets of Chattanooga, slowly making a name for herself. If Bessie Smith were alive today, she’d certainly be proud of the city Chattanooga has become—especially with the inception of our very own month-long celebration of jazz: Jazzanooga.
Jazzanooga began in 2010 as a one-day event called “Jazz on the Bluff”. It quickly grew into a festival that embraces and showcases all elements of jazz throughout the month of April, which is known nationally as Jazz Appreciation Month. Since its rebranding from Jazz on the Bluff, Jazzanooga has blossomed into many events and activities for jazz enthusiasts, families and the arts-minded community of Chattanooga.
Jazzanooga has been bringing all facets of music to the forefront by showcasing live music, art, food and education. For example: the exciting and unique upcoming event that Jazznooga is hosting is with culinary historian and Washington D.C.-based food writer, Michael Twitty. Twitty will lead a lecture and cooking demonstration on the subject of edible jazz on Thursday, April 24 at Dish T’ Pass. Food and music lovers, this one’s for you.
James McKissic and Shane Morrow created Jazzanooga after discovering a need for a jazz festival in the Scenic City. McKissic credits this Frederick Douglass quote as the beginning of Jazzanooga’s journey: “I prayed for twenty years but I received no answer until I prayed with my feet.”
Mckissic currently serves as the director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs for the city of Chattanooga and sits on many boards, including ArtsBuild and the Mayor’s Chattanooga Forward Arts Task Force. Morrow can be seen around town sharing his musical gifts as the founder and director of THECREATIVEUNDERGROUND, a community arts initiative that aims to increase awareness and visibility of culturally artistic expressions from the diverse and underrepresented communities in the greater Chattanooga area.
He’s also an active board member for Barking Legs Theater and Art 120. If you know these guys or have been in the same room with them for any amount of time, you’ve quickly become aware that they aren’t the type of people who sit around asking “why”; they do. They move with their feet and get the party—in this case, the festival—started.
Thanks to the support from both the Benwood and Lyndhurst Foundations and Double Cola, Jazzanooga has been able to market to a broader audience and invest in world-class headlining acts. The festival is supplying music lovers with performances from jazz singer Gregory Porter and Lalah Hathaway, daughter of the legendary singer Donny Hathaway.
Both Porter and Hathaway have recently been nominated for Grammys and after performing in Chattanooga, both are heading to Tokyo to perform in the International Jazz Day Concert with jazz greats Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins. Also scheduled to perform is “American Idol” season two winner Ruben Studdard.
“It is our hope that the festival will continue to grow and become a wonderful event for Chattanoogans and people throughout the region,” says McKissic. (Lalah Hathaway and Ruben Studdard perform April 25 at the Tivoli; Gregory Porter and Avery Sunshine perform April 27 at the Community Theatre at Memorial Auditorium.)
In addition to national acts, Jazzanooga is also featuring musical talents based right here in our city. Artists like the Ben Friberg Trio, Booker T. Scruggs, Normal Park’s jazz band and the Dexter Bell Trio are just a sampling of what Chattanooga offers musically.
Local jazz musician Booker Scruggs is a native of Chattanooga and a 1960 graduate of Howard High School, where he was a member of Howard High School’s concert band. He went on to attend Clark Atlanta University, where he continued his love of music by playing in both the marching and concert bands.
Scruggs is a clarinetist and saxophonist who is a part of multiple musical groups including The Chattanooga Gospel Orchestra, Spectrum Jazz Band, Chattanooga Clarinet Choir and the Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble. A stalwart of the Chattanooga jazz scene, he’s helping preserve Chattanooga’s music community one note at a time.
“It is important to preserve jazz because it is one of the original art forms of the American culture,” says Scruggs. “It’s difficult to preserve jazz in Chattanooga because without [events like] Jazzanooga, there aren’t too many other outlets which promote jazz on a regular basis.” During Jazzanooga, the Booker T. Scruggs Ensemble presented a concert at Barking Legs Theater to honor and educate the public on 10 African-American composers from jazz to gospel. Scruggs also participated in a Jazz Meets Gospel event with the Chattanooga Gospel Orchestra.
Looking through the Jazzanooga lineup and schedule, you’ll notice there’s a little something for everyone. Jazzanooga features everything from big band to soulful jazz with a bit of contemporary jazz sprinkled in. Another pleasantly surprising feature of Jazzanooga is the involvement of Chattanooga’s youth. Children may not be the first group of people you think of when contemplating a jazz festival—but that’s what makes Jazzanooga such a special and unique music festival.
“With arts education programs diminishing within our schools, we established a Youth Music Academy for youth between the ages of 12 and 18,” says Morrow. “It not only focuses on music education and performance, but it also provides a rare opportunity for our youth from diverse cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds to come together and learn to celebrate their differences through the arts.”
Through the Youth Music Academy, students are also learning how to play jazz and are performing at different venues throughout the city during Jazzanooga.
On Friday, April 11, Jazzanooga hosted JazzReach, a New York City-based nonprofit and one of the nation’s leading arts organizations dedicated to jazz. JazzReach musicians conducted live multimedia educational programs for more than 800 Hamilton County students, teachers and family members. In partnership with WTCI/PBS, organizers have also presented a weekly interactive and free screening on jazz, which is geared towards family enjoyment.
The growth of Jazzanooga has spiked since its inception. Both McKissic and Morrow see growth and hope for Jazzanooga as the festival matures. Morrow’s plans for growth include continuing to draw from the cultural history of our city and its residents, creating successful collaborations with local organizations, small businesses and cultural institutions, while also continuing to provide a festive platform where those who may not regularly interact can gather and celebrate together.
“Upwards and onward toward celebrating our city’s rich musical heritage. I really want Jazzanooga to be what the community needs it to be; a catalyst for positive change,” says Morrow.
In the future, organizers hope to attract a larger audience and a younger crowd interested in jazz. McKissic says that in addition to strategic planning, the festival will achieve its growth goals by using funds that Jazzanooga generates to funnel into community education and continuing the Youth Music Academy.
Jazzanooga is a nonprofit operating under the Community Foundation of Greater Chattanooga. Music enthusiasts and arts-minded Chattanoogans can donate to Jazzanooga’s fund by visiting the Community Foundation’s website.
For a listing of Jazzanooga events for the rest of the month, visit jazzanooga.org