Pittsfield gets jazzed

PITTSFIELD — A final centennial celebration and a return engagement by a New Orleans bred vocalist headline the 2017 Pittsfield CityJazz Festival.

The 13th annual, 10-day event kicks off this Columbus Day weekend highlighting local talent with "Jazz About Town. " A mid-week jazz prodigy concert showcasing an on-the-rise young New Jersey pianist leads into the marquee shows on the final weekend.

The Berkshires Jazz Inc.-sponsored festival this year appropriately pays homage to John Birks "Dizzy" Gillespie a week before his birth date of Oct. 21, 1917.

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience leads the celebration of the famed trumpeter, making its Berkshire debut Oct. 14 at The Colonial Theatre.

"We tend to keep the songs shorter than most jazz concerts and play more tunes to give people more of a show," said band leader, John Lee in an Eagle phone interview. The bass player performed with Gillespie for 10 years.

Opening for the Gillespie group is Berkshires Jazz Youth Ensemble, comprising selected student musicians from Herberg and Reid Middle Schools in Pittsfield.

The New York City-based, six-piece ensemble caps the local jazz scene's tribute to four American jazz greats born 100 years ago. The songs and music of Ella Fitzgerald (Berkshire Gateway Jazz Weekend), drummer Buddy Rich (Greg Caputo Big Band) and pianist/composer Thelonious Monk (Ted Rosenthal Quintet) were spotlighted in separate performances this summer sponsored by Berkshire Jazz Inc., founders of CityJazz.

Meanwhile, Friday the 13th proves lucky for fans of Samirah Evans, making her second consecutive CityJazz appearance. After a rousing first-time performance a year ago at Zucchini's restaurant, Evans and her band move downtown to Flavours of Malaysia on Oct. 13. With guest saxophonist Charles Neville, Evans will deliver a wide range of original and classic jazz tunes backed by a band featuring local and regional talent.

Chased out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina a decade ago, Evans was surprised and thrilled she's making back-to-back trips to Pittsfield.

"I've performed multiple years at larger festivals, but often times, smaller ones like Pittsfield try to showcase different talent each year," she said.

"I'm glad to be back."

CityJazz warms up this Friday through Sunday with the traditional Jazz About Town. The jazz crawl features local musicians in local restaurants and lounges, capped by a Sunday brunch at The Rainbow Restaurant on First Street.

Three days later, a free-of-charge Jazz Prodigy Series concert on Oct. 11will introduce 17-year-old pianist Caelan Cardello to Berkshires audience. A senior at Teaneck High School in New Jersey, Cardello was a discovery of Jazz House Kids, a nationally renowned after-school program in Newark.

Cardello started playing the piano at the age of 5 and got hooked on jazz via Vince Guaraldi's Charlie Brown theme music.


The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Cuban Experience showcases the unique rhythms and well-loved melodies of legendary trumpeter's Be-Bop repertoire which he developed in the 40s and 50s with Congo drum player Chano Pozo.

"Jazz went from swing to Be-Bop [bringing] more of an African flavor and a fusing of the rhythms," Lee noted. "Dizzy had an incredible range with his trumpet. He played fast tunes coming out of the swing era."

The band's musicians are drawn from New York-based talent that frequent the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band and All-Star groups.

Samirah Evans' group has a local flavor well established in the New York City jazz scene, all of whom have deep Berkshires connections: North Adams native Miro Sprague, piano; Mary Ann McSweeney on bass and drummer Conor Meehan.

"I chose my musicians based on their ability to shine. The instrumentation is just as important as the vocals." she said.

McSweeney is new to the band and fittingly playing the headliner weekend.

"This is perfect as she performed with Dizzy . She's a seasoned veteran," Evans noted.

Reach staff writer Dick Lindsay at 413-496-6233


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