A Hampton, Virginia Tradition

A Hampton, Virginia Tradition

by Carla Rupp and Jason Rupp

copyright © 2003 Carla Rupp and Jason Rupp

Count Basie used to play Hampton. So did Wes Montgomery, Duke Ellington, Nina Simone, Rahsaan Roland Kirk, Charles Mingus, and Sarah Vaughn. Hampton Jazz Festival is the country's premier multi-day music festival sponsored by a black university, a city government, and private entrepreneurship. It's a Hampton happening. It also has input from Festival Productions. It's a people event as much as an artist event. Of course, the people come for the artists.

It was a whole experience for us -- and it's not just jazz anymore. Calling it a jazz festival may be misleading, because there is much more than jazz at this festival. There is soul, r&b, soul, hip-hop, even some pop and rock & roll styles. But jazz is an important part. We loved it. We got a taste of African-American culture, literally, from its music, to its history, to its food.

There is a tradition here, and they are not going to change the name of it. At least three jazz news guys we found near the front of the huge circular Virginia venue come every year anyway to report on it. They appreciate the mix -- from a popular group this year BWB (featuring trumpeter Rick Braun, Kirk Whalen --What a great "Body and Soul" tune Whalen did on his sax! -- and Norman Brown, guitarist) to harmonious, sharply-dressed oldies like The Manhattans, The Dramatics, and the Isley Brothers.

Interestingly, Brown, one of the BWB members, who was born in Shreveport, La., was first interested in music influenced by the style of Jimi Hendrix and the Isley Brothers, a popular act this year, but after listening to his father's favorite, Wes Montgomery, everything changed. All three BWB stars were selling CDs in Hampton.

The 36th Annual Hampton Jazz Festival concluded successfully at the Hampton Coliseum with close to capacity crowds for each of the four artist-packed indoor concerts, with Dave Sanborn and Gladys Knight two of the acts on the final day on Sunday, June 29. Anita Baker performed on a Thursday, a day added this year in the first of four days to make it a longer festival.

Over 200 musical artists have performed at Hampton, and many have had repeat engagements. The eclectic offerings appeal to a wide age range of fans, from teens to senior citizens. We saw many buying merchandise and signing autographs with artists at the lobby table. Even sidemen with artists brought their own CDs to sell.

We were able to meet with artist Michael McDonald after he was through selling CDs. Formerly with groups Steely Dan and The Doobie Brothers, he said he felt humbled to play in a jazz festival and enjoys playing jazz riffs in his music. We patiently waited on the steps near the backstage area after McDonald concluded to give him time to unwind. "I love all the jazz radio stations. Jazz radio is a strong format. Smooth jazz has opened the doors to a lot of artists, myself included. I live in Nashville, and I like all the stations there. For me, it works to live in Nashville. Nashville has a music scene unlike any other."

Just a few years back, there was a press room for jazz writers at the Hampton Jazz Festival. Tom the Jazzman Mallison and the other journalists we met fondly recalled those days they had a place to interview the artists.

You learn very quickly that most in the audience are regulars. It's fun to come to Hampton. It's social. Almost half of the attendees learn about the festival from personal contacts; 13.5% from the radio; 9.8% from newspapers, and 3.8% from television. People bring their friends the next time they come. Many reserve rooms a year in advance. Tickets go on sale in March or April.

We found ourselves saying quite frequently that this was our first time, with others telling how many years they had attended and recounting the musical acts. "We come every year," James S. Warfield and his wife Alda, of Aberdeen, Md., told us. "We have a bus tour, and a few of the artists we like are Sanborn and Al Jarreau (from 1988, 1995). My wife and I think George Benson topped the show. We believe he showed up Earth, Wind & Fire, and I like Earth, Wind & Fire." Friday night's bill also included The Crusaders, with special guest Randy Crawford, and The Emotions.

"The jazz festival does a positive thing for jazz lovers to provide a reunion of sorts for people who come from all over the country," William H. Harvey, in his 25th year as university president of the local prestigious Hampton University (home of the Emancipation Oak and the Booker T. Washington Memorial Statue), which hosted the festival the first few years before it was moved to the 10,000-seat Coliseum, built in 1970. "It's a very positive thing for jazz aficionados, as well a boost for the City of Hampton economy," he told us as we chatted between acts in the lobby on Saturday. The night before we spotted him in the VIP room and he was just as friendly and personable and remembered when our press group stopped to see him in his office.

Greats such as Dizzy Gillespie, Ella Fitzgerald, Grover Washington, Jr., McCoy Tyner, Stan Getz, and Miles Davis are part of Hampton Jazz Festival's roster of earlier artists. The Hampton Jazz Festival began in 1968 at what once was called the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute, which opened in 1868 under founder General Samuel Chapman Armstrong. It educated newly freed slaves and later Native Americans. Dizzy played in the first year, along with Basie, Ramsey Lewis, Herbie Mann, and Thelonius Monk, with Dionne Warwick and Muddy Waters added to the mix.

Tom the Jazzman, a staunch JJA member, brings his wife Frances every year. "It's a very well-organized festival. People are really into the music. It's not always jazz, but those other artists enable the event to sell tickets, 'cause Earth, Wind & Fire can sell 10,000 tickets -- and George Benson can't. I think people like jazz better than the festival organizers think that they do. When Kirk Whalen played 'Body and Soul,' it was amazing -- and at the end they [BWB] played 'Mercy, Mercy,' written by Joe Zawinal."

Mallison called BWB the "token jazz group" of the night, "sort of like an hors d'oeuvre " for the jazz audience. "My opinion is they ought not to call it a jazz festival. It should be the Hampton Music Festival. But I understand that it's much more involved than selling tickets. There's tradition." He said he believes the "nonjazz" helps perpetuate (financially and otherwise) the festival. Mallison works for Public Radio East, hails from Greenville, N.C., and can be heard on WTEB-88.1 and 89.3, WKNS-90.3, and WBJD-91.5.

He'd driven down to Hampton from New York City, where he attended the Jazz Journalism Association Jazz Awards at B.B. King's in Times Square. Mallison loves to talk about this Hampton festival and began introducing us to important festival attendees. He said he "wouldn't want to ever miss Hampton just because of the non-jazz acts. They appeal to people.

"Look at the license plates outside. The people here, they come from Baltimore, Richmond, Philadelphia, and Charlotte, NC. They come from all over. For a lot of people, Hampton gives them a chance to dress up, show off, show off your woman, your man, whatever, go shopping. It's also like a homecoming for Hampton University. I've been coming for 25 years. I came in the years when Miles Davis and Nina Simone were here. Since 1976, they've been having the 'soul thing' along with people like Chuck Mangione and Spyra Gyro."

Mallison's fond memories go back in Hampton jazz history. "I saw Wynton Marsalis here in Hampton when he was 17 years old -- and I saw Benson when he sat in with an all star Group of Joe Henderson, Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, and Tony Williams. You should get the list of artists for the past 36 years!" I did get one later from Connie in the production office and yes, the list is impressive. "Pure jazz lovers don't come here, but I come here to Hampton because I enjoy music. I'm not just a (jazz) purist."

Sitting near the front, Joseph Daniels, who works for the North Carolina weekly newspaper the Carolina Peacemaker, a weekly newspaper, doubling as a writer and staff photographer, filled us in further. "In 1998 or '99 they switched the menu to some hip-hop and gospel and had a lower attendance on a Friday night. Because they lost a sponsor, they went back to a different format. Now it's a better mix. There is jazz and r&b, and with Anita Baker and Maze (featuring Frankie Beverly) the first night, I think it worked. If they [the people] come on Thursday night, they usual stay for the weekend." Daniels mostly photographs sports, but takes an annual short vacation from his base in Greensboro, NC, to report on Hampton. He gave me a copy of his newspaper section with his considerable coverage of the festival.

A third jazz journalist we met who regularly covers here is Larry LeKool Hollowell, music director of WJCD, Smooth Jazz CD 107.7. "I always come to Hampton because I have to keep on top of the smooth jazz acts as well as the high quality of artists who come here." Sponsors Chrysler Jeep and Clear Channel were pleased this year with the near sellout, almost all black-populated audience.

This festival not only puts on just plain good music that is not just jazz, but it's a feast for the eyes as well. It's more of a fashion show than any other festival we have attended. You see a lot of fancy outfits and men wearing hats. We took a photo of the Warfield couple and complimented them on their looks. "Look good? I have to. I'm representing jazz artists. I like music. I play sax on the side, and I love to sing. See, my shoes and my hat are by Stacy Adams, and I'm wearing a Giovanni suit. I bought this suit in Baltimore, Maryland." His occupation? Air conditioner salesman. And his wife is a nurse. They come every year to Hampton Jazz Festival. They proudly introduced us to their designated driver. "If it wouldn't be for this man, Louie, I wouldn't be here," said James Warfield.

Fifty-five came in their tour group, led by Louie Freeman, whose sister sets it up, from Aberdeen, Md. The lot outside was full of chartered buses. Most music lovers come from Virginia, Washington, D.C., Maryland, Pennsylvania and North Carolina. Others come in bus loads from New York, New Jersey, Delaware, South Carolina, Georgia, and even as far away as Connecticut, Massachusetts, Florida, and California; a few jazz aficionados travel to the festival from abroad.

The Jazz Jitney is another popular mode of transportation. It stops at Hampton hotels, the Coliseum, the Hampton History Museum (a good place to go), Hampton University Museum (founded in 1868, making it the oldest African-American museum in the U.S.), the Charles Taylor Arts Center, and the Afrikan American Festival -- all sites that we visited with our press tour. There are a lot of things to do in Hampton: Fridays and Saturdays are free during the Hampton Jazz Festival during the days to explore.

As travel writers -- and jazz journalists--we accepted an invitation from the Hampton Convention and Visitor Bureau to be part of the Heritage, Art & All That Jazz Press Tour. The CVB usually holds a tour for travel writers during the time of the jazz festival, according to Mary Furere, our wonderful and charming hostess. She found a lot for us to tell our readers about. We came away from Hampton feeling it's such a warm and cozy place.

It's fitting that jazz -- and not-just-jazz music loved by soulful people -- found a home in Hampton because, after all, the roots of jazz date back to the African-Americans. Way before jazz, in 1619, a vessel carrying twenty-odd African-American passengers arrived at Hampton's Old Point Comfort -- the same point of land on which John Smith and crew arrived in 1607. This historic landing marks the beginning of slavery in the New World.

History really came alive for us in Hampton. Each day was filled with interesting activities, such as touring the shores where the first African-Americans arrived, going into the Cousteau Society waterfront gallery, stepping into the cell where Jefferson Davis was imprisoned for several years at Fort Monroe, and singing hymns and spirituals in the Little England Chapel, Virginia's only known African-American missionary chapel. This tiny church sanctuary holds a permanent exhibit that helps visitors understand the religious lives of post-Civil War Virginian African-Americans. The Cousteau Society relocated to the previous home of the Hampton Visitor Center in April, 2003.

If you ever attend the Hampton Jazz Festival, be sure and ask the local visitors bureau how to find the historic Aberdeen Gardens neighborhood that was built "for blacks by blacks." We were treated to personal interviews with African-American residents who are proud of their history, homes and streets. Hilyard Robinson, a black architect from Howard University, was the architect-in-charge at Aberdeen Gardens. The streets were named for prominent black persons.

We also learned what an art-filled place Hampton is, with the unique Outdoor Art Gallery and many beautiful sculptures situated at appropriate locations in the quaint downtown area. We strolled along Queens Way looking at The Art Market, the outdoor gallery with 21 works displayed among restaurants, shops and galleries. We met some of the artists for personal perspectives on their works. In the shop Art By Gerome, artist Gerome Meminger treated us to a wine reception. Dinner was fusion dishes at Bobby's Americana. Our favorite was the oyster stew. Another eating rave was the home-cooked, (you wouldn't believe how good!) Southern-style buffet breakfast at the lovely Lady Neptune Bed & Breakfast Inn in Hampton's Buckrow Beach district. It has a picturesque view and is on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay in an area for sunbathing, swimming, beachside movies, and beach volleyball. The formal parlor and dining room is decorated in Louis XV furnishings with a cozy fireplace. The names of the rooms--Orchid Suite, Blue Lagoon, Golden Madrid, and Raspberry Deluxe -- are as colorful and inviting as the exterior of the home, which was transported by a barge down the Hampton River and Chesapeake Bay to its present location. You could spend all day just lounging on the backyard scenic deck. Another relaxing favorite was the historic Magnolia House, a 20-room, 19th century Queen Anne style bed-and-breakfast mansion where proprietor Karen Glass made us feel at home at lunch in the main dining room.

Other participants in our tour were Audrey Peterson, editor of American Legacy magazine, Marcia Lee and David Hall of Black Press International, Evelyn R. Frazier, magazine columnist for Port of Harlem, Wayne Dawkins, Soul of Virginia, John McGrail, journalist and photographer contributing to travelworldmagazine.com, and Skip Jones, freelance photographer who has contributed to Hampton Roads Monthly and worked for the Hampton Convention & Visitor Bureau.

From the excitement around the area, it's clear that the City of Hampton is gearing up for the new Hampton Roads Convention Center, due to open in 2005, on 90 acres adjacent to the Coliseum. Nearby our hotel was parking lot where outdoor venders set up Southern food -- barbequed turkey legs, lemonade, baked beans, cole slaw, potato salad, peach cobbler, sweet potato pie -- for festival and late night party-goers.

At breakfast the last morning at the Hampton Inn, we heard people say, "See you next year! It's a shame we won't see each other all year." Perhaps we'll be back, too.


Carla and Jason Rupp, mother and son, write about travel and jazz.


C o m m e n t s

Junior Jazz Festival 1 of 2
pjhb72a@prodigy.net October 26, 03

I am Shirley (Poindexter) Dyer. I am from Newsome Park, Newport News, and participated in the Junior Jazz Festival at Hamptom Institute in either 1957 or 1958, with the Carver High School Jr. Jazz Band (conductor: Mr. ______ Lewis). We won first place and it was in the news. My older brother, Garland Poindexter, won the year before me, and my two younger brothers, Robert and Richard Poindexter, won with a singing group the year after me. Collectively, over a three-year period, we were responsible for our school being awarded a large trophy, which had to be won by a school for three consecutive years. I would like to follow-up to see how that progressed during years after us. My two younger brothers, Robert and Richard, went to to write songs like "Thin Line Between Love and Hate," "Hypnotized," and others--for the Ojays, Persuaders, and others. In fact, my brother Richard is now an official member of the Persuaders. Please let me know if you have any info on the Jr.Jazz Festival. Thank you,

Shirley Dyer

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