Tucson Jazz Festival brings big name artists to southern Arizona

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An annual jazz festival is expected to bring more than 22,000 people to Tucson later this month, along with some of the biggest names in jazz.

The HSL Properties Tucson Jazz Festival began four years ago as an effort to increase tourism during the city’s slow season. This year, Arturo Sandoval, Sheila E. and Spyro Gyra will headline the festival, which runs from Jan. 11 through Jan. 21.

Tvonne Ervin, executive director for the festival, says Tucson is the ideal place to host a jazz festival. The 2,400 member Tucson Jazz Society quickly came out in support of the festival, says Ervin, and even those not associated with the jazz scene saw the festival as a needed attraction.

A world-renowned lineup

Ten-time Grammy Award-winner Arturo Sandoval came from Cuba to the U.S. to play trumpet to follow in the footsteps of legendary jazz artist Dizzy Gillespie, and eventually became his protégé. Sandoval will be playing with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra at the TCC Music Hall on Saturday, Jan. 13.

The Grammy Award-winning percussionist and vocalist Sheila E. will perform at the Rialto Theatre on Sunday, Jan. 14.

Spyro Gyra is one of the few smooth jazz bands to be featured in the festival. Ervin says their talent in improvisation is one of the reasons she made them one of the headliners. Spyra Gyra will play on Saturday, Jan. 20 at the Rialto Theatre.

Ervin says that while Tucson has a very dedicated jazz scene, the goal of the festival is to welcome all music lovers, from jazz aficionados to those who have never even heard a jazz production. For those recently becoming acquainted with the genre, Ervin suggests listening to Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue.”

For more information on the festival, visit tucsonjazzfestival.org.

TED SIMONS: Thank you for joining us on Arizona Horizon thanks for being here. Tucson jazz festival, 21 thousand expected. Give us more of an indication what this is about, how it started and how it got so big.

Yvonne Ervin: It started out big four years ago the mayor asked me 2014 and his friend Elliot said they wanted to start a jazz festival in January to increase tourism in January in Tucson where it is very low for some reason. People ask me to do these things and a lot and I had what I call my get me the witches broom stick moment and I said okay I will help and if you guys can raise 100,000 dollars in six weeks I will quit my job at the university and we’ll do it. We raised $125,000.

TED SIMONS: And this is for jazz. This is a specific art form, is jazz big in Tucson?

Yvonne Ervin: It was big. When I ran the Tucson jazz society we had the largest jazz society in the country with 2400 members. There is an audience there but I think people saw the need for a tourist attraction so the first year we did 13 days of jazz. Then since then we have done 11 days of jazz. We had an opportunity to bring in Burt back around and so we extended the festival the first year. So now its 11 days and we reach a lot of the people on Martin Luther King Day at our downtown jazz fiesta. That is about 8 to 10,000 people come throughout the day for free jazz on four different stages.

TED SIMONS: Sounds encouraging, sounds like things are happening down there. As far as the festival is concerned trumpeter Arturo Sandoval is going to be there. Talk to us about him, and again I’m going to ask this repeatedly. A lot of folks like jazz a little bit and don't know why they like jazz or they want to like jazz more but they don’t know what to look for and don't know what to listen for. With Arturo Sandoval, big name in the business. Who is he? Why is he good?

Yvonne Ervin: He is an amazing trumpeter from Cuba. He has been in the country for about 40 years now. He plays both classical and jazz and he plays it at the same time. There is a certain other trumpeter who used to play classical and jazz and he would not play them in the same month but Arturo is talented and so he’ll be performing at the Tucson symphony orchestra. We work with the symphony to bring in great jazz artists to play with a really big band.

Ted: So the orchestra is kind of his backing band, huh?

Yvonne Ervin: Yes. And he has an ensemble with them and I think he also is going to play at least one classical piece.

TED SIMOMS: Shelia E is going to be there. That is a pop icon back in the day.

Yvonne Ervin: Absolutely. She is doing great. She came up with a new CD called icon and it reflects a lot of the stuff she did with prince. I like her jazz sensibility in terms of she’s a great percussionist. You know her father is a great jazz percussionist. She’s the god daughter of Tito Fuente and so she’s is going to put on an amazing show.

Ted: Percussion is so big for her. I think it’s amazing to keep a career in percussion that going for that long.

Yvonne Ervin: Yeah, She just turned 60.

TED SIMONS: Speaking of which, Spyro Gyra. I am old enough to remember Spyro Gyra when they were actually on the radio.

Yvonne Ervin: They are still going strong. You know, I don't book smooth jazz but I really like Spyro Gyra. I think they have a great improvisation in what they do. Years ago I used to listen to them and transcribed their solo once. I was a saxophone major. I really enjoy their playing and I like to mix it up. Something for everybody at the festival.

Ted: Mingus dynasty the last one I want to mention here. They are still around.

Yvonne Ervin: It is not the same people so much. Originally was all people who played with Mingus. But right now there is only two people in any of the Mingus bands who used to play with Mingus. Then it is younger people who are carrying on the legacy of Charles Mingus.

Ted Simons: For someone watching right now. They want to go to Tucson and want to see jazz. They don't know what they know about jazz and want to know more. What kind of advice do you have?

Yvonne Ervin: When somebody wants to know more about jazz, or what the first album to listen to. I always say get miles Davis "this kind of blue". That said, there are different levels of improvisation and some things take more understanding in terms of having to know the music a little better. I think Charles Mingus music is a little bit more challenging than say what the hot sardines are going to play. The hot sardines I call them are jazz on steroids. It is traditional Dixie land jazz with an amazing energy. That is something I would recommend to people. And also on Thursday the 18th is going to be Dianne shore and she is another who can really speak to the audience. Bill Charlotte trio as well. Those are things I think people wouldn't have any trouble enjoying or understanding.

TED SIMONS: I think I may have actually seen the bill Charlotte trio. That is quite a group there. I think some folks feel intimidated and feel like they are missing something. Everyone else is into it and you are looking around going what am I supposed to listen to? Do you let it wash over you and don't worry too much about it?

Yvonne Ervin: Absolutely. Enjoy it in the way you can. If you keep listening, you will start to hear things that start to resonate when you hear something more challenging. But just listen and enjoy it.

TED SIMONS: I would imagine vocalists are probably a good entree. Don’t you think?

Yvonne Ervin: Yeah, I think so.

TED SIMONS: As far as the festival itself, give us dates, give us venues.

Yvonne Ervin: January 11th Thursday, starts off with hypnotic brass with rialto and then hot sardines at the fox theater. Saturday and Sunday it is the symphony with Arturo Sandoval at the TCC music hall. Sunday night is Shelia E. at the Rialto all day Monday we have free jazz from 11:00 to 7:00 downtown all over the place. Tuesday, Lauren wolf. Lou is playing at UA crouter hall is a great jazz vibraphonist. New tubachin is playing the Scottish right temple the next day with his trio. And Dianne Shuur is on Thursday along with Bill Charlap, it’s a double bill. It’s a tribute to Leonard Bernstein. Because it’s Leonard Bernstein’s hundredth birthday and then Friday is the Tucson jazz institute and we have a Phoenician performing with them. That’s Dennis Rolland will be performing the Tuesday jazz institute Ellington band which is our all city high school band and they are amazing. They are opening for the Mingus Dynasty band. And then Saturday night the 20th we have Spyro Gyra. And on the 21st a small little band that will be a lot of fun. It’s Whitecliff Jordan and Jay LenhartIt it’s a trombone and vocals and base and vocal. That is something people could latch on to.

Ted: I was going to say that sounds interesting. Little bottom heavy but interesting. Good luck with the festival. Sounds like things are happening in Tucson.

Yvonne Ervin: And a lot of people come from phoenix. About 25% of the audience is from phoenix.

Ted: Good news. Alright. Well thanks so much for joining us, we appreciate it.

Yvonne Ervin: You bet.

Yvonne Ervin: Executive Director, Tucson Jazz Festival

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