By Mike Zielinski
As the world turns and change is a constancy, there is one thing that never evolves … time always whirls on like a manic gyroscope.
Indeed, Father Time is ticking away over there in the corner, the dude wearing a beret holding a bass and a trumpet.
Numbers are a central theme because the 30th edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council is upon us.
Two primary staples in the Jazz Fest menu of performers over the years are two talented artists who have been key pistons in the engine that has sustained its long run of success.
Bassist Gerald Veasley and trumpeter Rick Braun need no introduction to Berks Jazz Fest fans. They have been as omnipresent as oxygen and have become the festival’s leading ambassadors.
“I’m pleased to be considered an ambassador of the festival,” Veasley says. “It’s a beautiful event. I would tell anyone in the world how great this festival is and the people who make it happen.”
Both have been perennial and prolific performers at Berks, with Gerald participating in his 23rd Jazz Fest this year and Rick appearing in his 22nd. As usual, both will be hyperactive during this year’s festival.
Veasley’s musical odyssey has taken him to the top of the contemporary music world as a bassist, bandleader, composer, producer, educator and curator. His performance as a six-string bassist has been top shelf, as his extensive body of work attests. He is motivated by a singular purpose: to translate his joy of music to the world, music without boundaries.
Braun, an Allentown native who moved to the West Coast years ago, is known for his impeccable technical chops, melodic wizardry, keen compositional prowess and his own distinctive sound. While Braun is notable for his trumpet, he also is a gifted singer.
The two have performed in a plethora and variety of BJF concerts over the years as headliners, collaborators and musical directors, performing a delicious smorgasbord of jazz and burning a musical path across the window of time.
So what brings them back year after year, seemingly ever since Teddy Roosevelt still was rough riding the range?
“In the jazz world I look at the Berks Jazz Fest as a treasure,” Veasley explains. “It’s a festival that given its track record has produced a lot of interesting programming through the years and launched as well as highlighted careers and contributions of artists. And to be involved in that festival for so many years, I’m really, really honored.
“Growing up in Philadelphia, even though I’ve had the pleasure of traveling the world, to have a major festival that is right down the road that is serious in its programming and its reach it’s really an honor to be involved in it.
“It’s really fascinating that we have this thing that has a national and international audience to be a stone’s throw away. Some folks ask me all the time if I still live in Reading. Because of the festival, people associate me with Reading. And I’m proud of that. Culturally it has become a powerhouse.
“It is important to highlight that Berks has such a variety of venues in terms of casual venues, formal venues, large places like the Scottish Rite, the clubs and everything in between like the Miller Center. That opens it up for different types of programming. Having the variety of spaces influences the kinds of music you can present and the level of artists you can present. I think that is unique to the festival as well.”
Veasley also cited his close collaboration with BJF general manager John Ernesto for attracting him to the festival year after year.”
“John Ernesto is so easy to work with,” Veasley says. “He’s straight forward. He has respect for the artists, respect for the music. He is a smart businessman and a creative programmer. But more than anything he’s a music lover and it shows in the festival.
“I love John as a friend because I always learn from him, I’m always impressed by his integrity and most of all what I learn from him is the spirit of win-win. That’s his whole approach to business and life.”
Rick Braun cites several reasons for his perennial participation at Berks, also giving major props to Ernesto.
“The answer is I get invited,” he says. “It’s the simplest answer. It’s also John Ernesto. John has done such an amazing job of running the festival and keeping it up there. I don’t think a lot of people appreciate what he really does.
“There are so many moving pieces and so many things to consider. What artist fits in what venue, what artist you can have playing at the same time that won’t compete against each other.
“Logistics. Keeping the volunteers happy. Knowing the amount of money you have to offer each artist that is appropriate, so you don’t lose the farm. To overpay or underpay and you don’t get the artist you want.
“We all love John so much. And for me, it’s definitely coming home. Having grown up in Allentown and shopped in Reading as a kid, like I always joke from the stage, every year before school I’d get new underwear from the Reading outlets. When you have been wearing underwear from the Reading outlets since you’re a little dude, there’s a feeling of coming home.”
One of the enduring charms of the festival to participating performers is the sheer multiplicity of concerts turns it into a big reunion party for them.
“I totally agree that the relationships that develop through the years with peers, a lot of that has been cultivated through my association with the Berks Jazz Fest,” Veasley says. “It’s a reunion. It makes sense because if you play a venue elsewhere, you’re there one weekend and your colleague is there the following weekend. So you don’t get a chance to share space and share stories.
“But at Berks, bringing so many folks together in one space to create music and to create memories, that’s what makes a festival like this so very special. Out of those connections, sometimes they are creative connections, sometimes they are business relationships and most of all there is a deepening of friendships.
“To add to that sense of camaraderie is the fact that myself and other artists are able to create special projects that sometimes are presented at other places, but John gives us the latitude to do things that are unique to the festival. All these special projects that myself and others have been able to do is because of John’s openness to allowing us to have spaces and venues to do something that are a little bit outside of the norm, it’s really unique.”
Braun also cherishes the collaboration and camaraderie of artists at Berks.
“I have so many fond memories with Pat Martino, Randy Brecker, Brian Bromberg, Philippe Saisse, Will Lee and people I don’t normally get to hang out with,” he says. “The list goes on and on. I always look at the Berks Jazz Fest as very special because another thing that happens at Berks that doesn’t happen at other festivals, the combinations of artists in ensembles that are unique. I kind of look at it as a band camp for grownups.
“We get together and go out. Here we go. It’s a be-bop show. What are we going to do? I don’t know. Eric Marienthal’s got something. Or Everette Harp. Or Jeff Lorber. We figure out what we’re going to do. For us, it’s definitely a musically challenging and uplifting experience for us at Berks. The fans sense that with the All-Star Jam and the be-bop show. They sense that it’s a unique experience, not just for them but for us as artists.”
One of the signature events of the festival every year is the Chuck Loeb Memorial All-Star Jam.
Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest lost a member of its family when the beloved guitarist/composer Chuck Loeb passed away in 2017 after a two-year battle with cancer.
Loeb was the musical director of the then-named Berks All-Star Jam, turning it from a loose jam session into a well-produced concert without losing any of its improvisational characteristics. Braun then joined him as co-musical directors.
With Loeb’s passing, Veasley teamed up with Braun as co-musical directors.
“Chuck had an interesting position in the jazz world because he was widely respected and revered not only by fans but by people at the highest levels,” Veasley explains. “So when Chuck would walk into a room and say, ‘Here’s what I’m thinking,’ he commanded a touch of respect. So it was easy for people to leave their egos at the door. Chuck was a master of getting folks to sublimate their own desires for the good of the entire show. He also was great at finding spots for everyone to shine.
“That was the producer in Chuck. He was a great guitarist and songwriter, but he also was a great producer in the studio. He brought a lot of those same skills in terms of organizing people and getting people to bring their best selves forward without ego. He was a master at that.
“For Rick and I, we try to continue Chuck’s model, that same spirit of collegiality letting everyone have a place to shine and getting folks to work together with as little ego as possible. It’s a pleasure working with Rick, who has this spirit of fun and great energy. He makes the whole process a lot of fun.”
“Chuck and I were partners as well on the All-Star Jam and we always collaborated,” Braun explains. “I always took a step back so Chuck could be the main person. He did an amazing job. Of the two of us, Chuck definitely was the more organized. You’d be hard pressed to find someone who is less organized than I am.
“Gerald is one of the kindest, sweetest souls in the world. On a musical level, he’s just so incredibly talented and a wonderful entertainer. He and I have had a wonderful time being the traffic directors on the All-Star Jam. It’s always a little bit challenging trying to accommodate everyone.
“It’s really funny because we really designate who plays what solos on what songs and we try to keep it short. Every year our tragic error is pointing to the one person who hasn’t attended the pre-show meeting where we’re saying keep your solos short. He’ll play like four choruses and that song winds up being 20 minutes long.”
A special event this year in which Braun is serving as the musical director and a performer is the 30th Anniversary All-Star Celebration also starring Peter White, Mindi Abair, Nick Colionne, Larry Braggs, Brian Bromberg and Euge Groove.
The concert will include a video/slideshow Remembrance segment recognizing the Berks Jazz Fest headliners who have passed away over the years.
“I get together with John and we figure out what we’re going to do,” Braun says. “We bounce ideas back and forth about artists. I’ve helped him in reaching out to some artists personally and trying to coordinate it. Once we hit the stage, I’ll do my thing and we’ll have a good time.”
To help commemorate the 30th anniversary of Berks Jazz Fest, the Berks Bop Big Band is going to put on a big concert and then some.
Braun is part of the big band along with Andrew Neu, Eric Marienthal, Gerald Albright, Everette Harp, Skip Spratt, Randy Brecker, Craig Kenney, Tony DeSantis, Aubrey Logan, Paul Arbogast and Jarred Antonacci.
Braun also is part of the highly anticipated Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder at 70! concert along with Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Maysa, Kimberly Brewer, Eric Darius, Nick Colionne, Ragan Whiteside, Glenn Jones, Art Sherrod Jr. and the DOXA Gospel Ensemble.
“That’s going to be a lot of fun,” Braun says. “Again, that’s part of the big picture. There always are events at Berks that are unique to Berks. You don’t see it anywhere else.”
One new thing Veasley will be doing at this year’s BJF is his Unscripted at Berks concerts featuring Nelson Rangell, Alex Bugnon and Marc Antoine the first weekend and Bobby Lyle, Chieli Minucci, and Jazmin Ghen the second weekend.
These Unscripted shows mimic Gerald’s Unscripted Jazz Series at SOUTH Jazz Parlor in Philadelphia.
“The Unscripted Jazz Series we do at SOUTH Jazz Parlor is full circle,” Veasley explains. “We borrowed from The Gerald Veasley Jazz Base at the Crowne Plaza model.”
Veasley hosts the very popular Midnight Jam that takes place every year on the Fridays and Saturdays of both festival weekends, assembling a phalanx of amazing artists to create unforgettable musical adventures.
“I love jam sessions,” Veasley says. “There is something exciting about not knowing exactly what you are going to do. It’s taking a risk. Victor Wooten compared it to walking on a tightwire. The excitement is that they might not make it. The stakes are very different. But the analogy still fits. That sense of taking a risk. A sense of vulnerability. For me, that’s thrilling. We have a ball with that.”
On a closing note, Veasley also gave props to the lifeblood of the festival.
“The festival volunteers and the production people are our friends,” he says. “The friendships we develop with them over the years is really cool. Those kinds of things are precious to me. Getting to know the people behind the scenes has been a blessing to me.”
“There are so many people in the support cast at the festival that we’ve become friends with,” Braun says. “It’s not just me. It’s all the musicians.”
As the years swell like a blowfish, Gerald Veasley and Rick Braun can bask in the warm light of magical Berks Jazz Fest experiences stored in the attics of their memories.
With undoubtedly many more memories to find storage for as the artists play on.