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Sounding New Notes 

Now in its 21st year, the Tri-C JazzFest is taking on world beat and the blues.

Pianist Billy Taylor kicks off the Tri-C JazzFest on April 2 at Severance Hall.
  • Pianist Billy Taylor kicks off the Tri-C JazzFest on April 2 at Severance Hall.
Last year, the Tri-C JazzFest, like many other music festivals around the country, had a natural hook: the centennial of Duke Ellington's birth. The venerable Cleveland institution did the Duke proud, with numerous concerts dedicated to him and his music. This year, the question was what to do for an encore.

Building the 21st annual Tri-C JazzFest theme around a musician, dead or alive, wasn't in store, so Willard Jenkins, in his sixth year as artistic director of the Cuyahoga Community College-based program, decided to open up the festivities by adding world beat and blues to the mix.

That's why former Shakti member and percussionist Zakir Hussain will lead a "Masters of Percussion" extravaganza on April 12, and why fiery young violinist Regina Carter will pace the "Jazz Explosion! Rising Star Summit" on April 8, along with the Winard Harper Sextet, the Stefon Harris Quintet, the Susie Ibarra Trio, the Thelonious Monk Ensemble, the Tri-C Jazz Studies Ensemble, and local saxophone star-on-the-rise Eddie Baccus Jr., son of the great blind organist Eddie Baccus Sr. The musicians will operate on two stages -- in Tri-C's main auditorium and theater.

"There's no one person we're paying homage to this year, so that's a major difference," Jenkins says via phone from his home in Rockville, Maryland. "We do have something of a theme, though it's not as predominant as our theme last year." If new players and sounds constitute one leitmotiv, "experience" provides another: The festival begins April 2 with a Severance Hall presentation, in conjunction with University Circle's Jazz on the Circle series, of Billy Taylor's Jazz at the Kennedy Center, also featuring harmonica player extraordinaire Jean "Toots" Thielemans. A closer look at the JazzFest lineup yields yet another common thread: drums. As themes go, it's not Duke Ellington, Jenkins acknowledges, but it's significant nonetheless.

"If you go through our schedule, you'll note we have a number of drummers in prominence throughout the festival," Jenkins notes. Johnny Almendra is a drummer/percussionist; Susie Ibarra and Winard Harper are drummer/bandleaders; [Greg] Bandy, who will honor Art Blakey with a performance on April 13, is a drum presence in Cleveland and, to a lesser extent, New York; and Zakir Hussain will bring East Indian percussion to the festival.

"This is the year 2000, the beginning of a new century," Jenkins says. "And at the beginning of a new century, you tend to look back at the roots of certain things. The drum is, of course, the original instrument, after the human voice. It's the root of all music, much less the root of jazz."

Other innovations at TriC JazzFest 2000 will be the Rising Star Summit -- an evening devoted to musicians deserving wider recognition -- which Jenkins hopes will become a fixture, and Blues Night on April 14, featuring Chicago legend Buddy Guy and members of New Orleans's Dirty Dozen Brass Band. Addition of such features is meant to broaden the festival, says Jenkins, who likens the process to cooking. "It's like you're kneading a wad of dough to make bread," he says. "You have to keep trying different elements. When you're cooking a meal, maybe you have a certain dish you make, and the next time you make it, you try another seasoning. You don't want to become stale, and you just want to keep moving up."

In the spice department, the world beats will be decidedly Spanish on April 7, when trombonist Jimmy Bosch, along with drummer Johnny Almendra y Los Jovenes Del Barrio, performs at the Metro Campus Auditorium, followed by a salsa party. Such eclectic programming would seemingly require extensive coordination efforts, but Jenkins downplays the craft that went into scheduling.

"There's no rocket science about it," he insists. "There's a sense of trying to present a balanced menu of types of artists, including having a Cleveland flavor, with Eddie Baccus and the Tri-C Jazz Studies ensemble. But there's not necessarily a formula. These are some exceptional young artists, whom I have had the opportunity to see in other venues and see how audiences react to them. They're people I wanted to bring to Cleveland and put onstage."

Which isn't easy in this city.

"One of the difficulties in Cleveland is [that] there hasn't been a real steady showcase room for jazz music," Jenkins says. "You had ancient history, like the Smiling Dog Saloon, and more recent history, like Peabody's -- places where music was first and foremost. Other than the things [promoter] Jim Wadsworth does -- and he's now at Nighttown -- there aren't many opportunities to hear jazz in Cleveland in a club setting, where the music is the reason people come. There are many opportunities to hear jazz in clubs, restaurants, and bars, but where the music is incidental in nature.

"On the concert level, jazz activity in Cleveland has picked up quite a lot, with Northeast Ohio Jazz Society activities and Jazz on the Circle, plus the annual JazzFest," Jenkins continues. "But jazz on the club level, which is really some of the lifeblood, is not what it needs to be."

Let alone on the street level, which is where Jenkins first encountered drummer Susie Ibarra, a New Yorker who has worked with the likes of David S. Ware.

"She was playing in a band -- this was in '99," Jenkins recalls. "I saw her at the subway station in Times Square, and I took a look at her and said, "Hmmm, this must be Susie Ibarra.'

"It was, and I determined from that that I wanted to bring her to Cleveland."

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