By GWEN OREL
She really did not want to make the call.
Jazz House Kids President and Founder Melissa Walker is an optimist. The Montclair Jazz Festival had promised to go forward rain or shine, and had even sent around an email on Friday night reassuring supporters that The Show Must Go On.
“But at the end of the day we aren’t in charge like Mother Nature is,” Walker said.
Early Saturday morning, Walker canceled the event. It was the first time in the festival’s nine-year history that the entire day had been called off for rain. Two years ago a bad storm began before the headline act so the festival ended early. But the entire event had never been canceled.
And 2018 will be the last time, Walker said outside 18 Label, where families of the student band, sponsors and media were invited to see the musicians who would have performed outside. The general public could not be invited because while 18 Label was hopping with more than 400 people, the Montclair Jazz Festival would have attracted 12,000, said Jazz House Kids Communications Specialist Nancy Klein.
Walker said that for next year there will be a Plan B, somehow. She doesn’t know what yet, but since the event at 18 Label was organized on just a few hours’ notice, Montclairites should feel confident that she’ll work something out.
Bob Silver, co-founder and CEO of The Bravitas Group, a presenting sponsor of the Montclair Jazz Festival, spoke outside the recently opened The Annex at 18 Label film space. Inside, Claudia Nketia sang with a Jazz House Kids Big Band. Nketia, a Montclair High School graduate who will attend the Berklee College of Music in the fall.
Silver had wanted to call off the festival the night before, but Walker did not want to yet, he said. When the decision came down in the morning, everything was organized quickly with a conference call that included Silver, Walker and Rose Cali.
Steven J. Plofker and Bobbi Brown offered the use of the 18 Label spaces.
“The primary focus was making sure there was a venue where the kids could play,” Silver said. After two weeks at the summer workshops, it would have been a shame to deprive students of their opportunity to perform. While it was a disappointing to call, it was the right decision: “I mean, look at this river,” he said, pointing to the stream running next to 18 Label. It ran furiously fast, and brown.
Actress S. Epatha Merkerson and WBGO morning host Gary Walker crossed back and forth between the 18 Label and The Annex at 18 Label to introduce the acts.
Merkerson (“Law & Order,” “Chicago Med”) would never miss the Montclair Jazz Festival. This is her fourth year as co-emcee, exactly the amount of time she’s been in “Chicago Med.” She puts it in her contract to have time off for the Montclair Jazz Festival. Watching the kids’ enthusiasm and commitment is what keeps her coming back, she said. “I like being close to it. This is a way of honoring the music, and the kids who are taking it to heart and just jamming.”
And, she said, “The electricity inside matches the lightning outside.”
“It’s a real heartbreak to work on something so hard and possibly for three months, and not be able to execute it,” said James Preston, on-site logistics and site manager. But everyone came out and had a great time, which shows how much people care about the organization, he added.
Walker, eating pulled pork outside the main stage, said the vibe of the event was less of a festival atmosphere and more of a giant club, like the old Village Gate in the village in New York City (home today of the club Le Poisson Rouge). He’s been announcing for six years. The spirit of the kids keeps him coming back, he said.
“A lot of these kids will never play professionally. They just won’t. What they will do is take the attitude, the discipline, the camaraderie for the final outcome and apply that attitude that they’ve developed at Jazz House Kids, in whatever endeavor they pursue.”
Oscar Perez led the student Afro Latin band. People lucky enough to get seats at tables snapped along and applauded the kids’ solos, while those standing at the back, in the lobby near the merchandise table, began to dance during the mambo “Oye Como Va.”
Eleven-year-old Benjamin Collins-Siegel played keyboard with the Afro Latin band. He’s been coming to Jazz House Kids for three years, he said, but this was his first time at the Montclair Jazz Festival, so was disappointed to be rained out. He was mad about that. He plays classical music, as well as jazz. “Jazz, you get to fool around, improvise and solo,” he said with a smile.
Later, during headliner Eddie Palmieri playing Latin jazz, salsa dancing began on the sides of the room, and a large conga line circled the floor. The events ran late. Nobody left.
During a transition as the playing space was being set up for Palmieri and his band, Merkerson and Walker interviewed some of the kids in the Jazz House Big Band, the final and very advanced student band of the evening.
Chloe Raichle, 17, also plays classical music and jazz on her bass. In classical music, she told the audience, t
here’s right. And there’s wrong.
“In jazz, there’s right, there’s wrong and there’s swingin,'” she said.
For Walker, while she laments the thousands who couldn’t celebrate the kids at the Montclair Jazz Festival, the concerts were “really special. We’re here to grow young people and tomorrow’s leaders, and I think we did that.”