02 Dec 2016
Tuneful TravelTuneful Travel

Hot Jazz on the Hot Beach: The Suncoast Jazz Classic reviewed

With 18 professional ensembles, 2 high school jazz bands, bonus jam sessions and performances running from morning to post-midnight all weekend, the Suncoast Jazz Classic dished out jazz in every genre for enthusiasts who gathered from around the globe, all on the sunny Gulf Coast beaches of Sand Key in Clearwater, Florida.

On Nov. 18-20 I attended my first, but the event’s 26th annual, Suncoast Jazz Classic held in Clearwater Beach, Florida. http://suncoastjazzclassic.comThe festival was headquartered in the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, which boasts 10 acres of of private shoreline. I made the drive down from Iowa in 2 days, overnighting in Nashville, and arrived at the Sheraton on Wednesday evening.  Thursday was a beautiful sunny day and I spent several hours at the beach, even venturing into the water which was just a little chilly, but fabulously clear and calm. I even spotted a musician, gypsy jazz guitarist Alfonso Ponticelli, on the beach with his family.


Thursday evening there was a buffet with music from Hot Marmalade and The Dave Bennett Quartet.

  Bob Rawlins of Hot Marmalade on soprano sax

Hot Marmalade, based in New Jersey, is led by Bob Rawlins on clarinet and saxophone. Rawlins has written a book entitled “Tunes of the Twenties and All That Jazz” and provided interesting historical information as he introduced each piece.

  Dave Bennett on clarinet, Jeff Kressler on piano, Ed Fedewa on bass, and Doug Cobb on drums (hidden from view)

The Dave Bennett Quartet, featuring Dave Bennett on clarinet, vocals and piano, performed crowd favorites including jazz classics such as Down in Honky Town, St. James Infirmary, One O’Clock Jump, and Dizzy Spells, interspersed with 50s and 60s classics such as Earth Angel, Eleanor Rigby and Yesterday (the latter two are Beatles’ tunes), and the rollicking Roll Over Beethoven and High School Hop.

Friday and Saturday were full days featuring several simultaneous hour-long performances starting at 10 or 11 a.m. and continuing into the wee hours of the morning.  I volunteered to help and was assigned to parking lot duty in an overflow lot from 9 am-2 pm both days. Although this meant that I missed a few hours of performances, I still enjoyed a full 10 hours or so of music each day.  I was also able to talk to the other parking lot volunteer, a local named Bob, and the arriving festival musicians and guests as well as the hardworking volunteer Wayland Linscott, who oversaw delivery and set-up of outside parking lights in addition to numerous details that went into making the festival work.

Only two of the bands performing this weekend were familiar to me: The Dave Bennett Quartet and Cornet Chop Suey, from St. Louis.  I discovered new bands I really enjoyed:  the Bill Allred Classic Jazz Band featuring excellent instrumentalists; the Midiri Brothers Sextet which included marvelous vibes’ playing; Alfonso Fonticelli & Swing Gitan, performing gypsy jazz; the High Sierra Jazz Band from California; and the Climax Jazz Band from Canada.

The Bill Allred Classic Jazz Band
High Sierra Jazz Band
Climax Jazz Band
Some of my favorite memories from the weekend including watching the skilled swing dancers on the big dance floor in one of the Sheraton’s music halls; sitting on the front row as Dave Bennett performed his rockabilly set on Saturday night; Dave Bennett and Ken Peplowski, both stellar clarinetists, performing an impromptu duet on St. James Infirmary; and the birthday cake presented to Bill Allred, trombonist with the Bill Allred Classic Jazz Band (amazingly this musician turned 80 years old but looks decades younger).
Dave Bennett gets his rockabilly on
Dave Bennett and Ken Peplowski on clarinets
Sunday, the final day of the festival, began with a Gospel Jazz session featuring the Dave Bennett Quartet and Lori Haffer. (I missed this because of my parking lot volunteer duties). Additional performances followed until the finale concert by the Bill Allred Classic Jazz Band at 4:15 Sunday afternoon closed out the festival until 2017.

This was a well-0rganized festival staffed by many volunteers which are vital for this kind of non-profit venture.  If you are able to go to one of these festivals, I highly recommend staying at the festival hotel so that you can stay late and not worry about getting to your hotel, and you can also sleep in and easily take short breaks during the day.  Another recommendation is to buy the weekend pass and if you have the extra funds, the patron or benefactor package which often affords better (closer) seating and sometimes, as with this festival, a special meal or musical entertainment.

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