Jazz rhythms and competitions await at the annual Carolina Jazz Festival

Festival headliner Christian McBride will perform Friday night at the Carolina Jazz Festival.  Photo courtesy of Jeff Bassinson.


By Diana Newton

Jazz is often held up to be the most American of art forms. Historians and musicians may argue whether that is true, but does it really matter when you are caught up in a wailing saxophone solo or the funky feel of a syncopated rhythm infusing a jazz performance?

The Carolina Jazz Festival, which runs February 17-21, will allow locals to decide for themselves as they listen to some of today’s best guest artists perform and witness high school jazz bands compete in this swingin’ annual event held in Chapel Hill and Durham.

A Rising Star on Sax and a Jazz Juggernaut on Bass

Now in its 47th year, the Festival will kick off on Thursday evening when UNC Faculty Jazz will be joined by guest Sharel Cassity, a tenor and alto saxophonist at the Sharp 9 Gallery in Durham, with shows at 7 and 9 P.M.

Saxophonist Sharel Cassity will perform, coach, and judge at the Festival.

Cassity, who was voted the 2023 “Rising Star” for alto sax by Downbeat Magazine, will not only perform but also be highly involved in coaching and judging students during the Festival. She certainly has the credentials and commitment to jazz education to do so. Cassity began playing the piano at age 4, the saxophone at age 9, and then began to study jazz at age 14. Inspired by Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Cannonball and Count Basie, Cassity joined a statewide big band and began seriously studying jazz, eventually attending Juilliard. In the decades since, she has made a name for herself in the jazz world, performing with legends such as Herbie Hancock, Natalie Cole, and Wynton Marsalis. Cassity has also crossed over to perform with mainstream artists such as Aretha Franklin, Natalie Merchant, and KD Lang. Composing and arranging are also part of her musical passions and learning classical flute.

On Friday afternoon, the Festival continues on the UNC campus. At 4 PM, Cassity will join UNC Jazz Combos to play a free concert at the Moeser Auditorium.

Friday evening Festival attendees can enjoy a ticketed performance by headliner Christian McBride and his band at Memorial Hall at 8 PM. McBride is a jazz juggernaut: a Grammy Award-winning bassist, composer, and bandleader, Artistic Director at the Newport Jazz Festival, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, and the National Jazz Museum in Harlem. Radio listeners may also have discovered him as host of NPR’s Jazz Night in America or SiriusXM’sThe Lowdown: Conversations With Christian.

Like Cassity, he has a boundless curiosity about many musical forms, leading him to record and perform with a long and genre-fluid list of musicians, from Sting and Herbie Hancock to Rhiannon Giddens and Renee Fleming. In this era of boundary-blurring between all kinds of longstanding categories in gender, ethnicity, music, and art, Christian McBride learned the value of reframing jazz from Dr. Billy Taylor, who described  jazz as “America’s classical music. ”

Growing up, McBride was in awe of the versatility and success of jazzman Wynton Marsalis. At age 15, while attending the Academy of Music, McBride attended a Master class led by Marsalis. The next day, with no notice, Marsalis unexpectedly brought the young, terrified bass player up on stage to play with his band during a concert, saying, “I think you are going to be hearing a lot more from this young man.” That Marsalis connection spiraled into the support of a community of musicians that helped rapidly advance his career.

High School Big Bands and Combos Compete

Young jazz musicians compete on Saturday at the NC Regional Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Festival.

That connection is still in evidence at the Carolina Jazz Festival through collaboration with the educational wing of Jazz at Lincoln Center (where Marsalis is Artistic Director).  All day on Saturday (9 AM-6 PM) at the Festival, the North Carolina Regional Essentially Ellington High School Jazz Festival will host big bands and community and/or jazz combos from several states into the competition. Each big band will perform three numbers in different styles—swing, ballad, Latin—that will be judged by adjudicators, including guest artist Sharel Cassity, UNC Jazz Faculty members, and clinicians from Jazz at Lincoln Center. Adjudicators will also listen to the community and jazz combos, provide invaluable coaching after their performances, and make awards.

As Festival guest artist Cassity knows deep in her bones, “Once you play jazz, it’s hard not to play jazz.” For these young, developing jazz musicians, an opportunity to compete in the Carolina Jazz Festival is like a rhythmic blood transfusion that keeps this most American musical art form swinging and improvising its way into the next generation of jazz greats.

Diana Newton is a coach, facilitator, filmmaker, writer, artist, yoga teacher and general Renaissance woman. Her documentary film, The Ties That Bind, is available for streaming on UNC-TV. She lives in Carrboro and is a UNC alum.

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