Arts Listings

Downtown Jazz Festival Starts Wednesday

By Ira Steingroot
Tuesday August 21, 2007

Jupiter, the popular Shattuck Avenue beerhouse, presents the ambitious third annual Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival beginning this Wednesday and running through Sunday, Aug. 25. 

The event, made possible by the Downtown Berkeley Association and produced by the JazzSchool, features 45 musical events at 15 venues all over downtown Berkeley. In addition to every genre of jazz, there will also be poetry readings and a photographic exhibition.  

Besides Jupiter, the other participating venues are Anna’s Jazz Island, the JazzSchool, Shattuck Down Low, La Note, Bobby G’s Pizzeria, Caltopia, BART Plaza and the Farmer’s Market, plus photography at Berkeley Public Library, poetry readings at Berkeley City College and Half Price Books, and a poetry slam at GAIA Arts. The variety of music represented includes bebop, cabaret vocals, reggae, hip hop, blues, free form, African, Latin, funk and soul.  

The artists performing include some of the best local performers as well as luminaries like Pete Escovedo who will be featured with Ray Obiedo and The Urban Latin Jazz Project at Anna’s, classic drummer Eddie Marshall along with Wil Blades at Jupiter, clarinetist Ben Goldberg with Myra Melford, Devin Hoff and Scott Amendola at the JazzSchool, the jazz images of Yoshi’s house photographer Stuart Brinin at the Berkeley Public Library and California poet laureate Al Young and Beat Generation legend Michael McClure at Half Price Books. 

Many of these events are free and provide an opportunity to check out the great cuisine of Berkeley’s restaurants, read the poems inscribed in the sidewalk on Addison Street and find out what kind of jazz is being played locally and what kind you like. 

Also in town this week is the magnificent reed player James Carter. When I first heard then 26-year-old Carter at the old Yoshi’s on Claremont in 1995, it was how I imagined it would have been to have heard Charlie Parker in 1945 or Ornette Coleman in 1960. Although I was too young to have experienced the halcyon days of bop or free jazz, I did see Roland Kirk in 1965, Archie Shepp in 1966 and John Coltrane in 1967. Carter had that same kind of energy, as if you were present at the birth of something new and exciting, something that could make you begin all over again. My notes from that first Bay Area appearance by Carter include the words: beautiful, remarkable, phenomenal freedom, weird, experimental, totally accessible, unending stream of ideas, incredible, passionate. This was such heady stuff as dreams are made on. 

Since then, Carter has visited the Bay Area often and has released many excellent albums, though none of them have been able to capture what I heard that night at Yoshi’s. For that matter, Carter’s live performances have never quite reached the heights he did at his Yoshi’s première. His technical abilities are unparalleled whether he’s playing any of the saxophones (soprano, f mezzo, alto, tenor, baritone, bass), clarinet, bass clarinet or flute. No performance is without rewarding moments, but no performance has ever seemed as fully-realized, as immediate, as that initial experience. Still, he is the only player of his generation who I would never miss seeing.  

The last two appearances of Carter’s at Yoshi’s that I caught were in April and July 2004. The earlier set included a volcanic tenor solo on “Don’s Idea,” when he seemed to be channeling tenor saxophone great Don Byas, and an overly-intentional performance of “Strange Fruit.” The performance, although sincere, was so literary, dramatic, historical and emotional that it became something less than musical. The July show had him as the added guest with the Django Reinhardt Project and included both amazing soprano work as well as some smoky, swaggering tenor. 

Jazz musicians have always surprised fans by looking at overlooked, forgotten or taken for granted elements of their own tradition for new directions. As we arrive at the fifth generation of this unique music, we see all of these elements of renewal, surprise and the simultaneous tension of conservative synthesis and revolutionary exploration in the playing of Carter. Whether he plays in the galvanic manner of a genie who has just popped out of a lamp or in a more conventionally romantic-melodic style, Carter is the most promising player of his generation and what he plays is cutting edge jazz. 


For a complete listing of all the events of the Third Annual Downtown Berkeley Jazz Festival, check the Planet’s Arts Calendar or call the Festival at 845-5373 or see James Carter appears at Yoshi’s, 510 Embarcadero West, Oakland from Thursdaythrough Sunday with shows at 8 and 10 p.m., except on Sundays when they are at 7 and 9 p.m. For more information call 238-9200 or see