Signal Hill has long been a communications point on the Southern California landscape. In an earlier era, Native Americans signaled their brethren with fire and smoke, from Santa Catalina Island to the foothills of the Coastal Range bordering what is now L.A.

Today the signals are electronic, connecting us--at the click of a mouse--to vast, new worldwide networks.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Sacramento Jazz Jubilee

I knew I was in trouble when Bethany changed to her dancing shoes.

Since Maria was home sick in bed, I was on my own, free to indulge in my own exuberant, anarchic and undisciplined dance style--by myself--to the swinging sounds of traditional jazz. I guess Bethany had seen some potential there, asking me to dance, and wakening me from my crazy little world. She changed her shoes, and I started apologizing for not knowing the conventional steps and moves. But it wasn't long before we got into the groove, thanks to her encouragement and coaching.

A swing dance fan since high school, Bethany, of Pittsburg, P.A., had scheduled her visit to friend Peter, currently living in Sacramento, for Memorial Day Weekend so she could dance at this, the 37th Sacramento Jazz and Jubilee. Peter, a non-dancer, sat nearby, trying not to look too interested; after all trad jazz isn't real hip these days. Bethany herself commented that this is her grandmother's music. (I suggested that it is really her great grandmother's music, since it was my parents' music.)

We were dancing to the music of the Fulton Street Jazz Band, a favorite of the Jubilee, and led by Bob Ringwald, pianist and father of film star Molly Ringwald, famous for The Breakfast Club, Pretty in Pink and many other movie and TV credits. She got her start at a very early age, singing with the band at the first two Jubilees. This year Molly was a featured performer at the Jubilee, separate from her dad and fronting her own band. (Click on the Fulton Street Jazz Band link above for a taste of Dad's music.)

(And click on Jazz Jubilee Photo Album for a few photos of this year's Jubilee.)

The Jubilee, begun originally in 1974 as a dixieland Memorial Day festival sponsored by the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, quickly expanded to include various types of traditional jazz, favorites of the older crowd. Now, as those older fans die out, the focus has broadened even more to include latin, blues, zydeco, straight ahead jazz, gypsy jazz, and other genres, to attract a younger audience.

This year, 60 professional and 15 youth bands--mostly from California-- played to 60,000 to 70,000, at about 20 venues. Today, most of the music is centered at Old Town Sac, the Holiday Inn downtown, and the Convention Center Area, including the Sheraton Hotel.

Just 15 years ago, 100 bands were coming from as far away as Poland, Germany, Scotland and Guatemala, to play for as many as 200,000 happy fans, in about 40 different venues: in Old Town Sac, Cal Expo, the Convention Center, the Crest Theater, and small tents scattered in between. Rumors of budget and management problems have persisted throughout.

But the musical artistry persists. By and large, it is a happy, danceable music. The crowd is still pretty old, not particularly hip by today's standards, but it is a happy crowd. And the musicians? Many are what I've taken to calling "community musicians," artist for whom artistic expression and a more intimate connection with the audience and fellow musicians trump the allure of fame and fortune. Community musicians are the "organic farmers" of the musical world, says Rick Lotter, the drummer who first introduced me to the term, and who is leader of Sacramento's Capital Jazz Project, a straight ahead jazz combo which performed this year, and of a more roots music group, Mumbo Gumbo, that has performed at previous Jubilees.

Community musicians are a throwback to an earlier era, with a new technology twist. They are DIY regional musicians who, with assistance from the Internet, can compose, record, perform, distribute their music, and build a loyal fan base. They hustle gigs and teach aspiring amateurs... AND they can afford to raise families. They are the embodiment of an alternative to the superficial glitz and glamour of "American Idol."

My interests in music are far-ranging, from classical, folk, rock, and blues, roots, straight ahead jazz and world music. In my opinion, none can match the exuberance and joy of traditional jazz and swing. I don't listen to or play much of it during the year, but as Memorial Day Weekend approaches, the corners of my mouth seem to turn up in anticipation.

Its not only a time for music, but it is a time to reunite with old friends and make new ones. Our annual visit to the Jubilee over these past 30 years, has become a gathering, a reunion of old graduate school buddies. Our pace has slowed, and we've even buried a couple of friends. But we keep coming back.

To get to the heart of the matter, we have learned that our annual trek to Sacramento is a ritual, perhaps even a sacrament in Old Sac. To paraphrase from the noted music scholar Christopher Small's Musicking: The Meanings of Performing and Listening, the music and the event help us explore, affirm and celebrate our link with the Great Pattern that connects the whole living world.

This is what keeps us coming back.

-- RCH


  1. What a great summary! We quit going to the Jazz Festival a couple of years ago. But it looks like you continue to have a wonderful time there. My taste in music is as eclectic as yours. Near your current home was a place that I played a lot when I was in high school (McCabes) - I played Bluegrass (5 String, Mandolin and Autoharp) in a couple of bands and actually made some dough doing that. But I am also a huge Opera fan and love a lot of Mexican music. In the 10,000 songs in my iTunes there is a very odd collection (not a big fan of hip-hop). Bring your guitar next time you are here and we could try some licks.

  2. Was my pleasure to meet and dance with you, so thank you for indulging my need for a little boogie in my step! :) And it was nice to read all of that information about the Jazz Jubilee, which I otherwise would not have known. Best to you on Signal Hill and all the other places you may find yourself adventuring.