Despite being known as the home of bessie smith, chattanooga has never really been known as a jazz town. There is a solid fan base, as evidenced by fans who organized Jazz Appreciation Month in April, and venues such as Barking Legs bring in jazz artists on a regular basis. But most are one-shots and core enthusiasts are left waiting for the next big show.
That show is this weekend, when fans of traditional jazz, particularly New Orleans-style Dixieland jazz, welcome a feast of music during the 22nd annual Chattanooga Traditional Jazz Festival, where the bands will swing and sway from morning to night from Friday to Sunday in the appropriate setting of the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
For this, jazz lovers can thank Mike and Astrid Griffin, both longtime traditional jazz aficionados from the midwest who moved to Chattanooga from Ohio in 1985.
Mike has a long and abiding interest in jazz, dating back to 1947, when he witnessed the legendary Norman Granz’s Jazz at the Philharmonic touring bands in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Chicago. He went on to work at the Grand Rapids Civic Auditorium, where he brought his passion for jazz and his skill as a promoter to the forefront. In 1956 and 1958, he brought Louis Armstrong and his All Stars to Grand Rapids, the 1956 show now available on the CD, Jazz is Back in Grand Rapids, on G.H.B. Records.
When he later moved to Ohio, Mike met Astrid, a Dutch native and former KLM flight attendant who worked in the front offices of the North Ohio Opera Association. They married in 1978 and, when the couple relocated to Chattanooga in the mid-1980s, they combined their love of jazz music and skills to create a festival here.
“When we came to Chattanooga, we didn’t realize Bessie Smith was from here,” remembers Mike. “We were kind of excited and decided to create a jazz festival to honor her in the spirit of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.”
That first festival in 1990 was dubbed the Bessie Smith Traditional Jazz Festival, organized to raise seed money for what is now known as the Bessie Smith Cultural Center. Twenty-two years later, the festival, since renamed the Chattanooga Traditional Jazz Festival, has been a huge hit each year, attracting fans from all over the country for a weekend of traditional jazz by some of the best bands in the business.
The Griffins are proud of the traditional jazz they’ve brought to Chattanooga each year, but this year’s festival is “our last hurrah,” says Mike. “We’ve been very successful, but after 22 years we’ve decided to move on and do other things.”
Hopefully, this Chattanooga jazz tradition will continue under new leadership, but for now the Griffins plan to join the crowd and jam the weekend away.
For ticket information, a complete list of bands and more information on the festival, visit chattanoogajazzfestival.com.
Chattanooga Traditional Jazz Festival
Friday-Sunday, May 4-6
Chattanooga Choo Choo
1400 Market St. (423) 266-0944