Monday, August 16, 2010

The Biggest Little Jazz Festival Anywhere

It can't compare with Newport or Montreaux in size, nor would it ever try, but for my money a jazz festival held every September in a one-stoplight northeastern Pennsylvania town is the best around.

The Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, as the festival is formally known, will be held on September 10-12, and the 33rd edition has an outsized importance. This is because festival sponsors have continued to refuse the corporate sponsorships that suffuse most festivals while having had to deal with atypically rainy weather during recent festival weekends. That depressed ticket sales -- and in turn COTA's treasury.

I urge you to consider attending at least one day. The Gap is an easy 90 minute drive from New York and Philadelphia and the line-up is to die for: Among many other acts, it includes a Phil Woods-led COTA orchestra with Nellie McKay, Urbie and Kathy Green, Bob Dorough's Ambassadorial Trio Plus, the Dave Liebman Group, and the 30th anniversary edition of the COTA Cats, a big band comprised of outstanding high school jazz musicians in the region.

And there's another reason as well: I'll be there signing the expanded second edition of The Bottom of the Fox: A True Story of Love, Devotion & cold-Blooded Murder. A dollar from the sale of each book is being donated to COTA.

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The festival was started in 1978 by Woods, by my lights the greatest living alto sax player, Rick Chamberlain, a virtuoso trombonist and first trombone chair for the New York City Ballet Orchestra, and Eddie Joubert, a Teamsters Union organizer whose midlife crisis had arrived right on schedule in the mid-1970s, prompting him to abandon the mean streets of North Jersey for the Gap, where he bought a run-down bar and became a community organizer and all-around do-gooder.

The Unholy Trio, as Woods, Chamberlain and Joubert were called, hatched the idea of the festival as a way to raise money to fix the Gap's derelict sewer system one boozy evening on the front porch of the venerable Deer Head Inn jazz club, which sits across Main Street from the grass amphitheater that faces the COTA stage.

Woods and Chamberlain will, of course, be performing this year. Joubert, who is the protagonist of The Bottom of the Fox, was murdered six weeks after the 1981 festival.

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It is no accident that the Gap hosts COTA because at one time it probably had more jazz clubs per capita than any town or city anywhere, and an incredible number of world-class jazz musicians have made their home in and near the Gap.

This abundance of riches was a happy consequence of the Poconos resort industry and pretty much can be traced to one man, Bob Newman, who had played in Woody Herman’s legendary Thundering Herd big band before becoming music director at the Mount Airy Lodge, a post that he held for most of the 1960s and 70s. Newman put together house bands that would back the biggest stars of the era, many of whom would play Mount Airy and other big resorts on a Saturday night and then appear on The Ed Sullivan Show in New York City the next night.

While some members of the house bands were local musicians, others had established careers and were lured out U.S. Route 46, the main drag between the Lincoln Tunnel and Poconos before Interstate 80 opened, because of well-paying resort gigs and vibrant late night jam-session scene.

"A musician leaving Mt. Airy for New York had to drive by the Deer Head Inn to get to the Portland Bridge and Route 46," explains Pat Dorian, the Distinguished Professor of Music at East Stroudsburg University, jazz historian and trumpet performer. "'Let's have a taste,' they'd say, and end up jamming until five in the morning with John Coates Jr. and other Deer Head regulars."

"'What a nice little club,' they'd say. 'What a nice little town. I could live here.'"

Coates, a pianist who has played at the Deer Head on and off since 1962, helped teach jazz icon Keith Jarrett to play, while comedian Jackie Gleason, a frequent visitor and golfer at the Shawnee Inn, used to sneak into the Deer Head to hear the gifted improviser.

Dorough, the great practitioner of vocalese, was one of the first musicians to move to the area from New York, arriving in the early 1960s. Then there was Morris Cohan, the father of actor Peter Coyote and a Manhattan broker who represented the interests of many musicians. Cohan bought a farm near the Gap and encouraged his clients to take advantage of the cheap housing prices and relatively close proximity to the Manhattan clubs that were their bread and better.

Among the other musicians who joined Dorough were tenor saxophonist Al Cohn, trombonist Urbie Green, pianist-vocalist David Frishberg, bassists Steve Gilmore and Russ Savakus, woodwind artist George Young, keyboard player Wolfgang Knittel, and drummers Bud Nealy and Bill Goodwin. Goodwin, who drummed for alto sax great Phil Woods, first lived in the attic of Dorough’s house and eventually lured Woods to the Gap.

Dorough, incidentally, tells me that he will premier a new song at this year's COTA. The title? "The Bottom of the Fox."

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Click here for more information on COTA and here for the lowdown on The Bottom of the Fox. I hope to see you!

Photographs by Garth Woods


Bud Nealy said...

Shaun,nicely done.

I'd love to see the history of musicians migration expanded upon. it is very unique, the social aspect especially. Early on I went to a cook out at Wolf Knittel's house and there everybody was in the backyard jammin'. The opportunity to play with those guys,the warmth and friendliness was something I'd never experienced in NYC.

Bob Newman,who passed away just a few days ago, was a piece of work. He'd tell you anything to get you to move out here: Fame, fortune, unlimited be-bop, the whole works. I went for it hook, line and don't bogart the joint. The friendships formed out here were based on mutual respect and love for an art form, not musical politics. Very different.

Thanks, Bud

Lynne Harriton said...

You are combining 2 very different people in your "Morris Cohan." Morris Cohon was a stockbroker who owned a place near Gap in Portland. He was influential in musicians' moving out here via his friendship with bassist Buddy Jones. None of the musicians who bought out here were 'clients' of Morris Cohan, though he may have had a relationship (denied by Peter) with the Portland Bank. He was the father of Peter Coyote.

Maxwell T. Cohen lived about 3 miles on Poconos side of Gap. He was the attorney who overturned NYC's Cabaret Law. He discovered Nina Simone. Cohen represented the interests of many jazz musicians, often for free. He brought musicians out to visit; none came to live here. The musicians he represented were generally black. The musicians who moved out to Water Gap area in first bebop wave, were white.

The only person I ever met who knew both stories was Buddy Jones, who brought out Urbie Green, Bob Dorough, the Goodwins, the Savakus's, and Al Cohn. He said Peter's father owned the Portland Bank. Peter denies it. He also told me that "none of this would have been possible were it not for an attorney named Maxwell T. Cohen." I never got the explanation.

To this day, I may never know. Rachel and Barbara, Max Cohen's daugher's were close family friends growing up -- and still are. We had a place near where Max Cohen brought to swim: Dizzy Gillespie (I think) & his band, Miriam Makeba, Hugh Masekela, Nina Simone...

Shaun Mullen said...

Hi Lynne:

I hope you are able to read my response to your comment as you have cleared up a point of confusion for many of the people whom I interviewed for a book I wrote about one of the founders of the jazz festival, some of whose recollections I folded into this post.

If you do read this, please shoot me your mailing address and I'll send you the book.

Best, Shaun

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