Sunday, March 14, 2010

Music feature: Mustafa jazz fest keeps the music alive

Russell Hall, bassist for the Dillard Performing Arts High School Jazz Band.
(Photo by Mark Hill)


By C.B. Hanif

South Florida has not lacked for jazz festivals over the years, but the road to musical fulfillment for local fans of this great art form has been rocky.

Consider the once-promising Riviera Beach Jazz and Blues Festival, which from 2002 to 2008 drew people from around the Southeast before getting away from its simple musical formula and falling victim to financial mismanagement and political infighting.

When bad weather one year forced a shivering Patti LaBelle from the stage, it could have been seen as an omen of the ills that would shortly sink the festival.

Jazz aficionado Robbie Littles, who helped orchestrate the Riviera festival, remembers when things were different, particularly because of the presence of trumpeter Melton Mustafa, his groups, and the bands he brought in.

Littles recalled being “pleasantly surprised when I saw as many kids from the high school level, particularly black, into jazz and performing down at the Melton Mustafa set.” Littles said that Mustafa, ever the educator, “also would come up and do clinics for the kids at Suncoast High School. We would invite kids from Palm Beach Lakes, Palm Beach Gardens and other high schools, and it was always extremely positive.”

All of which is proof that Mustafa's roots in South Florida run deep, back to the Afro Arts festivals in West Palm Beach that Littles helped spearhead between 1973 and the late 1980s. And that may explain why Mustafa's own festival has been going strong for 14 years now.

Jazz fans Brenda Rivers, left, and Yolanda English.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


“There’s so little live jazz down in South Florida that I’ve just been hungry for it,” Yolanda English said after the Melton Mustafa Jazz Festival closed its two-day run Feb. 13. “I had a night’s full tonight. Just to be able to hear live jazz, period — and especially the orchestra, my goodness, the big band — that’s really priceless down here,” added the Broward County resident, who was back for her second year.

“I’ve been coming since the beginning,” said her friend Brenda Rivers of Miami. What did she like best this night? “For me it was the youth band. I always like to see the talent of the future, and it really was a pleasant rendering we got tonight,” she said, also complimenting the “comfortable atmosphere.”

The long-running event on the campus of Florida Memorial University proved again to be no less than a South Florida jewel, featuring internationally renowned artists assembled by Mustafa, Florida Memorial’s director of jazz studies, in the school’s cozy Lou Rawls Performing Arts Theater.

Miami native son Mustafa not only is a gifted trumpeter, arranger, composer, bandleader and producer. He’s been a headliner at various international jazz festivals, has performed with Count Basie’s, Duke Ellington’s and Woody Herman’s orchestras, and leads his own small groups and big bands.

Charles Tolliver plays with the big band.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


As in past years, the event on the Miami Gardens campus featured another stellar lineup: trumpeter/composer Charles Tolliver, drummer Victor Lewis, pianist Edward Simon, bassist Ed Howard, saxman Jesse Jones Jr.

“Among the greatest jazz musicians in the world, barring none,” observed Mustafa.

He should know, having played alongside innumerable numbers of the best, from Billy Taylor to Frank Sinatra, Idris Muhammad to Nestor Torres. His festival routinely hosts them. Some are noted music educators themselves to which the university has awarded honorary doctoral degrees, such as James Moody and the late Grover Washington Jr.

In fact, the education aspect is just another that distinguishes the two-day festival. On Friday each year are master workshops during which aspiring students, participating band directors and registered guests learn from some of jazz’s greatest artists. This year’s sessions were streamed live online at theglobaljazznetwork.com.

Saturday’s climax kicked off with the Dillard Performing Arts High School Jazz Band. One might have expected Director Christopher Dorsey’s kids to come off like deer in the bright lights. But they clearly were in their element as they went to work performing such big band standards as the Duke Ellington Orchestra ballad After All.

Christopher Dorsey leads the Dillard Performing Arts High School Jazz Band.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


“We need go down to Dade County and let them see how we swing up here in Broward County,” Dorsey said he had told his students. They proceeded to a rendition of Stolen Moments, featuring various members of the ensemble exhibiting their improvisational skills.

Several of the same kids sat in as the Broward College Jazz Ensemble next took the stage, performing such tunes as the classic On the Sunny Side of the Street.

As always, the Florida Memorial University Presidential Jazz Band, which is supervised by Mustafa, was impressive. The group included two steel pans, three vocalists, a trumpet and rhythm section, and started off with the late trumpeter Freddie Hubbard’s Red Clay. Their soaring, lengthy rendition allowed room for all the musicians to show out, while the steel drums, carrying the melody, added a unique, stirring texture.

Saxophonist Jesse Jones Jr. and trumpeter Melton Mustafa.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


Yet the evening was just warming up to an unexpected treat: the Jesse Jones Jr. Quintet, featuring South Florida vocalist Yvonne Brown. Jones’ flute and his alternately sweet and funky alto sax were impeccable. When Mustafa’s brilliant trumpet joined in, the musical magic only heightened.

Following another brief intermission to get things set up came what everyone had waited for: Mustafa’s all-star jazz quartet with Simon, Howard and master drummer Lewis. The set, which featured several original Victor Lewis compositions, concluded with his Hey, It’s Me You’re Talking To, which he said pianist Kenny Barron had inspired.

Even after the jazz legends had forged rhythm and harmony into light, there was more. To cap the night, the quartet morphed into a big band directed by Tolliver. That ensemble delivered with performances such as 'Round Midnight, featuring Tolliver’s trumpet solo. Among other fine renditions was I Want to Talk About You, the Billy Eckstine tune from his big-band days that was immortalized by John Coltrane.

Amid all the joyful noise was one sign of why this is Miami’s longest-running jazz festival: sitting on the back row of the bandstand was the unpretentious Mustafa, who through the years has not been averse to taking a back seat to his invited guests. Next to him was Yamin Bilal Mustafa, his son and another accomplished trumpeter. The evening’s engaging emcee, in fact, was another son, Melton Rashaan Mustafa, music teacher at Broward’s Parkway Middle School and himself a noted saxman.

Dillard students Brandon Lubin, left, Anthony Burrell and Markus Howell.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


During a reception following the concert, several Dillard High School apprentices spoke of what it meant to have watched jazz theory in exquisite practice.

“It was pretty amazing,” said saxophonist Brandon Lubin. “I got to see some good players you don’t get to see every day. I got to see Jesse Jones. I appreciated him the most. He had a beautiful sound.”

Fellow saxman Anthony Burrell, on why he was there: “Came here to play, came here to listen to some good music.” And how did it go? “It was fun playing onstage, we got to play some tunes. And we heard some bands. The bands were tight. The last big band was just off the chain. Victor Lewis, killing it. One of the best drummers I’ve ever heard in my life.”

“I was blown away,” said Markus Howell. “I would say as a saxophone player, I liked Jesse Jones, just like Brandon. His sound. What jumped out at me was I could tell he was influenced by Cannonball Adderley, one of my main influences. The big band, Victor Lewis, Melton Mustafa, everyone. I’m just blown away.” Howell aspires “to become a college professor, teach the music, tour.”

Bassist Russell Hall said the Saturday workshops “were a real learning experience. It was great to actually have a one-on-one session with someone who is actually out there and doing it for their living.”

But the masters too appreciated those sessions. “Yesterday I saw some guys of the future,” drummer Lewis said regarding the Saturday workshops. “It’s the same that the older cats saw in me when I was that age, and meanwhile I’m saying, ‘I’m not worthy, but I love this, maybe I’ll get a shot at it.’ And the older cats saw that in me, and they would take a minute to give me a little wisdom, and I’d get some mileage out of it.

"So I saw guys yesterday that don’t even know right now that they’re part of the future of this music. I had to work hard to hold back the tears.”

Charles Tolliver and Melton Mustafa.
(Photo by C.B. Hanif)


Littles said Mustafa, Florida Memorial and the current and future legends of jazz have been in a solid groove since the beginning.

“Just as he always put together solid aggregations to bring up to the Riviera Beach Jazz Festival — whether his small group, quartet, or his 18-piece orchestra — at the Florida Memorial set he’s always had, at least the at ones I’ve attended, an array of solid, stellar entertainers. That’s a consistent thread with him: Surround himself with the sharpest people who are available.”

That included that kids, on a night when the underlying theme was increasing support for jazz and other arts programs.

“I was very pleased and awestruck by so much talent on one stage,” said Dr. Sandra Thompson, Florida Memorial’s president, who added that she was tired of hearing the festival called South Florida’s best-kept secret. “The kids were fantastic. Can you imagine as they grow and mature even more? The talent is just phenomenal.”

Said Lynn Fenster, a university trustee: “I thought it was probably about as good as you’re going to see anyplace in this country. I sat here crying to think that we can have such fabulous kids and nobody would know it. And tonight a lot of people knew it. There wasn’t anybody on that stage tonight, even the young orchestras, who couldn’t go anyplace and play. It was scary. I think our music school can really put us on the map.”

Sumner Hutcheson, vice president for institutional advancement, noted that the university “is very proud of the fact that we have such professional artists as Melton Mustafa, and Dr. Dawn Batson (chair of the visual and performing arts department), who are excellent performers in their own right but also are encouraging the students.”

Hutcheson expressed excitement about the university winning an $80,000 Knight Foundation challenge grant to support scholarships. But he also encouraged alumni, friends and friends of jazz “to help support these fine programs and mostly the students.”

Throughout the evening, Mustafa echoed that appeal.

His focus continues to be on promoting his fellow legends while they’re still here, and on delivering classical African-American music to new generations to be kept alive and pure.

And his gem of a South Florida festival, in the midst of its second decade and dear to music lovers as diverse as humanity, continues to be a credit to that music, to its music makers and to their fans.

For more on the festival, visit www.meltonmustafa.com or www.msmartsinc.org. For more on The Global Jazz Network, visit www.theglobaljazznetwork.com.

C.B. Hanif is a writer, editor and consultant at cbhanif.com.

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