By TOM CHESEK
There was the year the heavens opened up and harpist Rod Piazza, faced with a potential washout of his headline set, led a flotilla of fanatics over to the former Oakland House restaurant for a spontaneous bluesblast.
Then there was that year that legendary Howlin’ Wolf sideman Hubert Sumlin and an all-star band of heavies (among them Levon Helm and David Johansen) marched up the hill and entered the (also now defunct) Olde Union House for an impromptu drizzly-night jam that got almost three songs in before borough fire marshals de-funked the premises.
There have been days when the sloping natural amphitheatre of Marine Park recalled Woodstock’s mud-people nation. Nights called on account o’ fog. Out-of-nowhere dust devils that turned funnel cakes into powder-sugar funnelclouds and saw butterfly fries spread their wings and soar.
Proud as the Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation has been to present what’s often been called “the largest free music festival on the East Coast,” there’s always been an understanding that, while this is a chance for nightclub cats to strut their stuffs under the sun, it’s still Big Mama Nature who reserves the right to blow the most showstopping solos.
Something happened during the 2007 edition of the Red Bank Jazz and Blues Festival, however, as last year was the first time in recent memory that the weekend-long outdoor event presented three perfect afternoons and evenings of music, food and shopping in the park. As the finishing touches fall into place for this Friday’s keynote to the 22nd annual festival, it’s spokesman Ira Rosen who outlines the foundation’s official position on matters meteorological.
“I don’t look at the weather,” says Rosen, a 30-year veteran of the events-production business. “But you know what? People come out anyway. Jazz and blues fans are incredibly loyal.”
As marketing and sponsorship coordinator for the JSJBF, Rosen is more apt to keep his eye on the overcast outlook of the current economic climate, a factor that presents the organizers with their “biggest challenge,” even to the point of soliciting good-will donations from attendees at the free event.
“We’re a fully volunteer organization,” says Rosen from his adjunct teaching post at Temple University. “Our people work long hours all year round, and it’s important that we remain a free event.
“We have event staff who arrive hours before the public, who stay through til 11 at night, and they get a t-shirt to show for it,” Rosen adds. “They do it because they truly believe in the music and the mission.”
According to Rosen, there’s actually very little breathing room between festivals. Members of the foundation’s music selection committee regularly review thousands of CD and tape submissions from hopeful featured artists who would gladly race halfway across the continent for a chance to appear at the Red Bank showcase. And as the guy in charge of rounding up sponsors, Rosen finds himself working the phones in all seasons, to make a nut that’s been reported to be in the neighborhood of $200,000.
“With the economy being what it is at the moment, we’re finding fewer corporations who’d love to share their money,” says Rosen, citing the example of former corporate sponsor Washington Mutual, who “just can’t be there for us this year in the middle of the banking crisis.”
And, as reported in Sunday’s Asbury Park Press, the organizers will be asking for donations from the public for the first time in the event’s history with JSJBF co-chairman Dennis Eschbach quoted in the article as saying “we’d have no trouble funding this” if everyone who attended donated one dollar apiece.
Still, “there are companies like Super Foodtown-Food Circus, who have stepped up to the plate since the beginning,” Rosen adds. “They’re a company who ‘gets’ it; they know it’s good for business and it’s important for them to support hometown events such as this one.”
Even in the current economic conditions, Rosen points out that “there’s a long waiting list” of vendors angling for booth space at the festival’s open-air merchant midway. With the transformation from “a food festival with a little bit of music, to a major music festival with food” complete, the organizers do everything in their power to “support our vendors; keep them happy, and help them keep their prices reasonable.”
New this year at Marine Park’s riverside walkway will be an interactive USA Basketball Red, White and Hoops Tour installation, where kids can take part in shooting competitions between stops at the surrounding game, activity and snack stands.
Another upside is the return of three separate stages; last year, the event was downscaled to two. Featured in the mix of national touring acts and Shore-pedigreed favorites will be hometown guitar hero Matt O’Ree, who headlines the main Marina Stage on Friday; jump blues bandleader Greg Piccolo and Heavy Juice, who uncork their best on Saturday; and the swing-jazz orchestra of Ron Sunshine, poised to keep the storm clouds at bay on Sunday.
Also on tap are such local/regional faves as The Jazz Lobsters, Sandy Mack, Frank Fotusky, Chelsea Palermo and Pat Karwan. The kid-oriented Backbeat Stage will host four distinct sets featuring foundation workhorse TJ Wheeler, who jams both solo and in cahoots with the JSJBF Youth Project and the Whole Fam Damily Jug Band (the veteran music educator will also be visiting area schools in the days leading up to the festival weekend).
As for Rosen, he’s “already looking toward next year. We literally start selling the 2009 event by the first of July.”
Compete schedule details, directions and information on parking, vendors and lodging are available at the festival’s official website. The Jersey Shore Jazz and Blues Foundation returns to the local area with a full slate of summer concerts in Long Branch; a series of Blues Cruises aboard the double-decker Atlantic Highlands Princess, and a monthly house party at the Woman’s Club of Red Bank, presented year-round under the name Reckless Steamy Nights.