Berks Jazz Fest artists Gerald Veasley and Rick Braun up close

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.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Dean Brown up close

By Mike Zielinski

Dean Brown’s Summer of Love Evolution wedding an interpretive jazz component to signature songs from the abundantly memorable 1968-72 period of music promises to be an imaginative flight of brilliance.

This luminous concert on Friday, April 3, at 7 p.m. at the Miller Center for the Arts will be one of the highlights of the 30th anniversary edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council.

Brown, a superlative guitarist, composer, producer, arranger and educator, has put together a marvelous project spotlighting great music being played by great musicians.

The Summer of Love Evolution features a dynamic array of artists in multiple Grammy-winning trumpeter Randy Brecker; multiple Grammy-winning saxophonist Eric Marienthal; profoundly diverse vocalist Honey Larochelle; extraordinary drummer Keith Carlock; incredible pianist/keyboardist Jim Beard; Billy Joel and Michael Bolton bassist Schuyler Deale; accomplished vocalist/guitarist Deveron Patterson; master-of-all-trades Mino Cinelu (percussion, drums, bass, guitar, keyboards, vocals) and the Berks Horns (Mike Anderson on saxophone, Rob Diener on trumpet and John Loos on trombone).

The Summer of Love of 1967 began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district, an event that birthed a brilliant musical era. The Summer of Love celebrates its 53rd anniversary this year. The exact date is sketchy, lost somewhere in the psychedelic haze of historical memory.

But the Summer of Love endures today because it represents a time like no other in American history. While there were societal upheavals before, there had never been the tremors that began in the West and shook the status quo from coast to coast, for better and for worse.

The Summer of Love’s most recognizable denizens were the hippies who harbored dreams of transcendence, young people awash in new ideas, fresh attitudes, boundless energy and free love. It began with utopian beginnings when peace and love were paramount, spawning great music. It was a social phenomenon that also popped up in many places in the U.S., Canada and Europe.

But there also were grimy, seedy, drug-addled loners and drifters who used the spirit of the Summer of Love as an excuse to avoid responsibility. There were all kinds who gathered at the Haight-Asbury epicenter. That’s what happens when tumult envelops a nation divided by the tumult of the Vietnam War.

“In my opinion, the Summer of Love was a protest against the idea that we had to go around killing each other,” Brown says. “And that it would be a much more enlightened world if everybody sort of lived and let live. The Vietnam War was a huge influence on culture. So many of the artists were taking a stand against killing people in the name of democracy. That what was going on, whether you agree with it or not. There was such a huge divide and that’s why things got dark.

“When we talk about the Summer of Love, for me as a musician, I would rather focus on the good things that came out of it, which is the music. What happened with the music is what we hoped would happen in society. Everything worked with everything else. That’s what I’m trying to illustrate in this concert at Berks. Songs like Miles Davis are going to fit well with a song by Crosby, Stills and Nash. They’re like related.”

Indeed, the Summer of Love produced a wondrous volume of great music, juicier than a summer peach. There was magic floating in the air. Some hit songs pass through like fog and quickly burn off. Not the classic songs from that era.

Let’s be honest. Even some No. 1 records are about as exciting as warts. But many of the songs from the 1968-72 epoch are about as boring as probing a lion for a sore tooth. Those songs are art. They should be painted as well as listened to.

“The music of that era is such an integral part of people’s musical upbringing,” Brown says. “There’s never been a period in music where more different kinds of music affected more different other kinds of music.

“There was so much cross-pollination, rock musicians using more jazzy sounds and on the other side many jazz musicians were looking for something more to push them, to push the envelope with this rock thing that was a different type of scenario and a different type of orchestration and made things sound completely different.

“Being that it’s the Berks Jazz Festival, I’m trying to draw a direct correlation between the jazz music that everybody loves and the actual songs and groups of the late 60s, early 70s that were so popular, that had so much influence on those jazz artists. We want the audience to hear the two things happening at the same time.”

Those who came of age listening to that abundant treasure chest of music during the late 1960s and early 70s never want to flee their past like orphans of the storm. And now their past meets the present, courtesy of Dean Brown’s jazz spin on that music.

As you can imagine, it was a monumental task for Brown to sift through all that marvelous music and winnow it down or otherwise the concert would last forever and a day.

“A lot of the music I’ve chosen for this particular project lends itself to improvisatory exploration,” Brown explains. “Even though we’re playing songs from The Fifth Dimension or Crosby, Stills and Nash or the Beatles or Marvin Gaye.

“I was looking for songs that I thought were important to me and also would lend themselves to this cross-pollination of jazz and rock or jazz and soul music or jazz and Latin. I spent a lot of time curating the repertoire and narrowing it down. It was a huge thing.

“And I’m thinking about the various guys and girls that we are using on this project that we want to feature and that helps rarify the selection. We probably will play 10 or 12 songs. It might be a little more. Not to give anything away, but some of the songs are mashups. Even if you perceive them as one song, they are sort of mashup of things, a jazz song and a rock song.”

One of the hallmarks of the Berks Jazz Fest over the years is the uniquely special musical projects it premieres. The Summer of Love Evolution is a prime example.

“This project will have its premiere at Berks Jazz Fest,” Brown says. “We probably will rehearse for a couple days at Berks prior to the concert. But everybody will have the music for at least a month so they can marinate with it. It will be mocked up. But I don’t want to lock it in too much, to make it sound like a finished product. I don’t want to do some cookie-cutter kind of thing.

“I want the artists on stage to explore that music in their own way, however they want. There obviously is a template. We don’t want to make it too dense in terms of arrangements but also not so sparse that there is not enough content.

“My plan is to do this at Berks, see how it goes, and see if I can get some interest to actually record it somehow and perhaps take it elsewhere. It depends on the amount of interest. To me it’s a no-brainer.”

So it would seem.

By the way, the Summer of Love and the music it spawned also gave birth to Dean Brown’s remarkable career. Even though he was only 12 in 1967. More on that in a moment but first a quick glance at his resume.

Brown’s music defies boundaries to combine rock, Latin, jazz, funk and fusion into a joyful, soulful, dynamic and intense groove. He is well known in the global jazz/fusion scene for his powerful virtuosic rhythm guitar work and his passionate melodic soloing.

R&B goddess Roberta Flack says of Brown: “I found guitarist Dean Brown to play behind me. He’s a genius.”

Brown released his fifth celebrated album Rolajafufu in 2016 after four acclaimed previous solo CD’s worldwide. Brown’s guitar work can be heard on well over 200 recordings which include numerous Grammy nominations and four Grammy Award winners.

Since starting to play professionally with his own group at the age of 13, Brown has toured all over the world with his projects and performed and recorded alongside legendary artists such as Marcus Miller, The Brecker Brothers, Billy Cobham, David Sanborn, Bob James, George Duke, Roberta Flack, Bill Evans, Randy Brecker, Victor Bailey, Joe Zawinul, Simon Phillips, Lenny White, Chris Minh Doky, Kirk Whalum, and Steve Smith’s Vital Information, just to name a few.

Brown picks up the narrative of why the music from the Summer of Love era — along with a fortuitous introduction into jazz — was so transformative for him personally.

“I started gigging when I was 13 and the music from that era obviously had a profound effect on me in terms of me wanting to be a musician,” he explains. “Up to that point I didn’t have that much interest in it even though my mom was a professional singer singing jazz. It didn’t resonate with me.

“I came to jazz through the side door because of that music and I think that this is what this project is kind of about — my window into jazz came through artists who were not jazz musicians but played rock or soul or various different other genres.

“Jethro Tull. Emerson, Lake and Palmer. During this transition I was playing in a band and a couple guys in the band were GIs. We played the pop and rock and soul music of the day. Those guys told me I had to listen to John Coltrane and Wes Montgomery. It was transformational. I heard it but I still didn’t know what the hell it was. But I liked it.

“It took me the longest time to realize that when the guys were soloing, they actually were soloing over a form. It sounded to me then like they were playing freely until they played the melody again. In fact they were playing over the form and the chords of that song. It was a major step for me to even just like it, instead of dismissing it as something my mom did.

“It kind of came full circle. All of a sudden, the musicians I was listening to were being influenced by the music that I liked. That was where a lot of the jazz rock was born out of. Jazz musicians were embracing electric bass and electric keyboards.”

Brown’s perspective is that the power of music extends far beyond what goes into people’s eardrums. He experiences that every time he writes and performs.

Anyone that’s seen Brown live understands how that translates into a charged, emotional experience that leaves no doubt about his intimate relationship with the muse. It’s common to see Brown leaping about with wild abandon at his gigs to the delight of the audience.

“I feel like I’m tapping into a higher energy when I write and perform,” he says. “It’s about respecting the muse. I try not to think about it too deeply and just channel the flow. It’s about being open to inspiration and enabling an energy conversation to take place. I’m not interested in filters.”

The Summer of Love Evolution at Berks Jazz Fest will be an emotional experience. That’s a lead-pipe cinch.

“I put the word evolution in there,” Brown says. “You are going to recognize these songs as part of the tapestry of your listening experience throughout the late 60s and early 70s. But I’m not just covering stuff just to get a rise out of people. That’s not enough. Even though all the songs are going to get a rise out of people.

“I’m choosing songs that are very easily recognizable. I’m tempering my artistic license with the understanding that I want people to feel a connection. They just have to sit back and enjoy the ride. It’s going to be a nostalgic experience but also something that is immediate and urgent.”

He takes a pregnant pause.

“I don’t think there’s any way to screw this up,” he laughs.

No way in hell.

Berks Jazz artist Marcus Miller up close

By Mike Zielinski

When you look at the totality of Marcus Miller’s career, you blink in astonishment.

How could one musician accomplish so much in so many realms?

How could an artist follow so many paths with all of them leading to the top?

Usually when you navigate a maze, the network of divergent paths leads to a puzzling dead end.

But not with Marcus Miller. All his paths lead to the summit.

“As a Gemini, I’m always working on two, three or four or five paths at the same time,” says Miller, who is bringing his Laid Black Tour to the 30th anniversary of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, April 4, at 6 p.m. at the Scottish Rite Cathedral.

No wonder the man has been dubbed the Renaissance Man.

He also has been dubbed the world’s preeminent living bass player. He’s not merely a bass player, he’s a virtuoso. Like Heifetz with a violin and Horowitz at the piano back in the day. His creativity is as unstoppable as tomorrow.

“I discovered the bass during the glory years of bass players,” Miller explains. “When I was a teenager, we had Larry Graham, James Jamerson, Stanley Clarke, Jaco Pastorius, Bootsy Collins, Anthony Jackson, Alphonso Johnson. They all were doing their thing. I had some pretty high standards to live up to. I was practicing all the time. I was pushing myself to be like those guys. The bass really was in the center of music back then.”

That hard-wired drive enabled Miller to scale the Everest of his profession. His meteor is up there and blazing. His signature sound snaps ears to rigid attention.

Indeed, his bass playing can be as hot as tar percolating under an unforgiving sun.
Miller also has been dubbed one of the most influential artists of our time because of his groundbreaking style and carefully cultivated, unique musical voice.

Let’s face it, the man has been dubbed everything but a knight.

But back to his massively influential music voice. It took him a while to discover his voice. It was buried somewhere deep inside him and had yet to scratch its way out of his stomach.

Once it did, his voice resonated around the globe. The irony is thick enough to cut with a steak knife.

“I started focusing on my solo career when (legendary trumpeter) Miles (Davis) passed in September of 1991,” says Miller, who is 60. “I had done some solo stuff in the 80s but didn’t really feel like I had found my voice as a solo artist yet. So I stopped and restarted it when Miles passed.

“A big problem for sidemen, studio musicians, is finding their own voice because we make a living being chameleons. And that is exactly the opposite of what you do as an artist. As an artist you have to have a really specific point of view. It took me a minute to make the transition.

“When I first started as a sideman, I would play for Whitney Houston or Paul Simon or whoever it was, you wouldn’t even know it was me on the bass. Because I was just playing exactly what I thought was necessary to just support the music. As I began to grow, my own style emerged. When I started collaborating later on, I would actually I would bring my style to the mix.

“That’s when people started to say that I know it’s you on every record I hear that you play on. But it wasn’t like that. There are a whole bunch of records I played on where you don’t know it’s me. As I evolved, I became more like a sideman slash artist. I found a way to make my style enhance whoever I was working with.”

Miller was even leaving footprints along various paths on a daily basis back in the day.

“In my studio days, in the morning I would play on a commercial for Huggie diapers or Ford trucks,” he explains. “We did jingles in the morning. That was a New York studio musician’s bread and butter. To play on TV commercials in the morning.

“Around noon you had a record date with Roberta Flack or Bob James or whoever it was. At night you’d go to the clubs and you’d play. I was very much a presence in the New York City jazz scene. While I was being a studio chameleon in the morning, I also played with Miles in his band at night. The trick for me was to find a way to bring it all together. I still haven’t completely brought it all together.

“That was an incredible time with Miles. I started playing with Miles in 1981. He already was a huge legend. It literally was like playing with like a god. I was surprised he was only five feet six inches tall. He was a regular human being, to my surprise.

“I happened to catch him at an incredible time in his life. I played in his band for a couple years. Then I left. Then I came back, like 1985 or 1986, to write music and produce music for him. In that second period he was in a real reflective mood.”

Some men develop arthritis as they age. Other men develop a deep sense of retrospection. That was Miles Davis.

“So we would be working on music, just he and I in the studio,” recalls Miller. “He would just stop and start talking about Charlie Parker or Dizzy Gillespie. All these stories. Just out of nowhere. An incredible time to be sitting there next to him. Really a beautiful experience, man.”

Miller’s whole career has been a beautiful experience. Indeed, he has enjoyed one of the most enviable careers in music. He is a two-time Grammy winner and the composer/producer of numerous critically acclaimed and genre-defying albums, including his 2018 release Laid Black.

He wrote the renowned track “Maputo” on the David Sanborn/Bob James collaboration Double Vision, considered by many as one of the most successful albums in the jazz genre that sold over a million copies and won a Grammy Award.

Besides seemingly being able to play the bass while walking on water, he also is highly proficient as a keyboardist and clarinetist/bass clarinetist.

Not only has Miller pioneered the continuing development of a technique known as “slapping”, but his fretless bass technique also has served as an inspiration to many and has taken the fretless bass into musical situations and genres previously unexplored with the electric bass of any description.

His resume as an A-list player brims with over 500 recording credits as a sideman on albums across the spectrum of musical styles.

He also writes movie scores and hosts his own show Miller Time with Marcus Miller on Sirius Satellite Radio.

How many roads must a man walk down before they call him a multitasking genius?

Besides Sanborn, James, Davis, Houston, Simon and Flack, Miller has played, and in many cases written and produced for, such luminaries as Luther Vandros, Joe Sample, The Crusaders, Lalah Hathaway, Herbie Hancock, Bill Withers, Chaka Khan, Eric Clapton, Aretha Franklin, George Benson, Elton John, Al Jarreau, Wayne Shorter and Mariah Carey.

It’s a magical experience to listen to a legend play. It’s a transcendent experience to sit down and play with a legend.

“The first time I played with George Benson or Joe Sample or The Crusaders or Miles, those are pretty heavy moments,” Miller says. “You can’t believe the music you’re hearing is a sound that you’ve been listening to your whole life, but you’re hearing it come out of the person who’s sitting right across from you. That’s a trip. But eventually you become contemporaries and good friends. Then you’re just enjoying making music.

“The same with David Sanborn. The first time I heard that sound live was when we were putting the Saturday Night Live Band together, 1979,1980, something like that. Sanborn was in the band, too. That was incredible. That’s when David and my relationship began. His sound was so distinctive. It blows your minds. After a while, it’s not so much awe. It’s respect.”

Miller has a rich and very deep resume of outstanding collaborations, including a 15-year songwriting and production partnership with Vandross, resulting in an astonishing13 consecutive platinum-selling albums.

Vandross was a living, breathing, veritable hit machine at that time. His voice was termed “flawless” and “as smooth as silk.” His voice created an atmosphere of pure romance. For years Vandross was the go-to-singer for when you wanted to get in the mood.

But it wasn’t always so.

“Luther and I were in Roberta Flack’s band together,” Miller says. “Luther at the time was a really popular background and studio singer in New York. He also was singing for TV commercials in the morning. We would pass each other in the studio. We got to be buddies on the road with Roberta.

“He was as hardcore about singing as I was about jazz. I really learned a lot about singers from him. He had this dream to make his own music. He got a lot of us guys from the Roberta Flack band together and we did a little demo. He took the demo around for about a year trying to get his own record deal.

“It wasn’t as easy as you would think. At the time the big groups in R&B were like Earth, Wind and Fire … R&B bands with 13 people in the band and bright colors. And Luther was just like a standstill singer. It took him a minute to get a record deal. When he finally did, the record was Never Too Much. It instantly was a smash.

“All of a sudden in front of my eyes I see my buddy become a huge star. Negotiating that and trying to figure out how to live your life when everybody knows who you were, I got to see the whole thing, the positives and the negatives. But there were so many more positives.”

And indescribable moments.

“When you’re playing on Luther’s fourth record and you know that every note you play millions of people are going to hear it because now he’s a star and people are waiting for his next recording, that’s an incredible thing,” Miller says. “So you’re in the studio and he’s singing live with the band, I know it’s another classic as we’re playing it.

“We didn’t know ‘Maputo’ was going to become what it became. It just sounded pretty nice. But with Luther when we got a few albums in, you could tell that you were performing music that you would be listening to for the rest of your life on the radio. I can’t even describe it with words. The beauty of being in that situation.”

Miller’s voice trails off as he savors that delicious memory.

Music is a dialogue between an artist and his instrument in which they go deep into the heart of each other’s matter. There is a cosmic connection between Marcus Miller and his bass, one that has enabled him to master the ultimate inquisition of himself and his art.

“I basically play one bass,” he says. “I started playing it in 1977. In fact, it’s a 1977 Fender Jazz Bass and I’ve been playing it my whole life.”

He used to exclusively be a Fender guy. But when Sire approached him and demonstrated to him that a Sire bass had the same quality as a Fender but was less expensive, Miller started endorsing them “because I wanted to put quality, affordable instruments in kids’ hands.”

“I’m not giving up my Fender,” he says. “It’s like a singer changing throats. You’ll hear me playing my Sire V7 Vintage 30 percent of the time on stage and the rest is my Fender.”

You’ll also see a very fit Marcus Miller on stage. He looks like a guy you could drive railroad spikes with. Rock hard, he looks like he was mined, not born.

“I’ve enjoyed working out for a long time,” he says. “I try to work out every day. It never happens with all the traveling I do. But if you try every day, you will work out at least three times a week. Weight training, playing basketball, all the crazy insanity stuff they have. I like to switch it up. Again, I’m a Gemini. And your body gets comfortable if you do the same routine all the time.”

Miller is thoroughly enjoying his Laid Black Tour that he’s bringing to Berks, the BJF concert featuring Surprise Special Guests. His Laid Black Tour reflects Miller’s view of jazz that is rangy and iconoclastic yet respectful to the art form’s traditions.

“The album came out a year and a half ago and we’ve been touring with the album since then,” he says. “It’s a really been a beautiful thing. When you have an idea for an album and when you’re on stage playing that music a year later, it’s an incredible thing.”

Miller’s Jazz Fest appearance is subtitled Blue Note at Sea Cruise Night. To help celebrate the 30th anniversary of the festival, Entertainment Cruise Productions is offering everyone who purchases tickets for the fest a chance to win a cabin for the Blue Note at Sea cruise set for January 23-30, 2021 that features – you guessed it – Marcus Miller.

The raffle will be held just prior to his concert that evening.

Miller’s long involvement with Entertainment Cruise Productions began when his very close late friend Wayman Tisdale, the NBA star and jazz bassist, hooked him up with ECP executive director Michael Lazaroff.

“At first I didn’t know if I wanted to be a musician on The Love Boat,” laughs Miller “But I went on a cruise and it was so cool. Then I hosted them. Michael asked me to pick it up after Wayman passed 11 years ago and I became musical director. It’s become a really incredible thing. A lot of musicians hanging out together. We’ve copied the Berks Jazz Fest model. We’re Berks Jazz Fest on water.”

Apparently having successfully navigated every conceivable path on land, Marcus Miller taking to the sea was as inevitable as the sunrise.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Kenny Neal up close

By Mike Zielinski

It’s the bloodline. No doubt about it. It’s his bloodline that spawned and sustains the long and remarkable career of the preternaturally gifted Kenny Neal. The man doesn’t bleed red. He was born and bred to bleed the blues.

Little wonder that his 2016 release Bloodline was nominated for a Grammy Award for Best Contemporary Blues Album and also won two Blues Music Awards — one for Best Contemporary Blues Album and the other for Best Contemporary Male Blues Artist.

Neal started playing music at such a young age he can’t even remember when it was. It likely was before he even learned to walk. Funny thing about walking. It takes a bit for kids to learn how to walk. But once learned, they pretty much have it mastered.

It was like that with music for young Kenny. He was a child prodigy, a simple matter of predestination. He learned the basics from his father, singer and blues harmonica master Raful Neal.

Young Kenny had some big shoes to fill. But he’s been more than up to the task. He’s a modern swamp-blues multi-instrumentalist – guitar, bass, harmonica, vocals – blending his swampy roots with soul and R&B to put his own contemporary spin on the blues.

Indeed, Kenny Neal is the real deal and delivers the blues like no one else can.
Born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge, Neal was playing in his father’s band at 13 and was playing bass for the legendary Buddy Guy at 18. Not too much later he was playing with another blues god in Muddy Waters.

How many young men can hold their own with divinity? Imagine a young man co-authoring with Homer, Shakespeare and Hemmingway. Talking transcendent talent.

Of course, bloodline isn’t the sole reason why Kenny Neal has flourished for decades. His Louisiana roots are a major reason why he is bringing The Neal Family Revue to the 30th Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, March 28, at 1:30 p.m. at The Inn at Reading.

If he and his kin were raised in Idaho or Utah, they likely would be in the audience, not on the stage, at Berks Jazz Fest.

Baton Rouge is known as the swamp blues capital of Louisiana.

“You hear Chicago-style blues or West Coast, but down here we got so many different cultures that blend in together,” Neal says from his Baton Rouge home. “I guess that’s where we get that gumbo from. Cajun, New Orleans, rag time — it was rag time before it was jazz — all that makes up what we call swamp blues.

“Baton Rouge to New Orleans north to Delta, Mississippi. So many different types of music combined. We got that bluesy feel from the Delta, that jump, zydeco, Cajun from Baton Rouge, and the funk jazz music from New Orleans. That’s what I like about the music I play.”

And when Kenny is playing the harp on stage, his dad is pouring out of that harmonica.

“The harp is a very big part of my show,” he says. “I love the harmonica. A lot of times when I play it, I hear my dad coming out of me. I play his licks and at those moments sometimes I’ll say, ‘Wow, thanks for giving me this,’ and I’ll reminisce with my dad for a bit.

“I play the harp upside down like my dad. He played backwards. Instead of the lower end on the left side, we play it with low end on the right side. Slim Harpo did it. Whispering Smith did it. The guys from here all played upside down. I can bend the notes real good like that.”

Raful Neal had great friends, great connections in Baton Rouge.

“Buddy Guy and his brothers Phil and Sam — Sam still lives in Baton Rouge — they’ve been family for years,” Kenny explains. “Buddy was my dad’s guitar player in 1956 and 1957. Then Buddy and my dad got an offer from Muddy Waters in 1958 to join him in Chicago. Buddy went but my dad had just started his family here. I’m the eldest of 10. My father stayed in Baton Rouge because he wanted to make some babies.

“Buddy would always come back to visit his brothers and sisters and always come to my dad’s house and go out to my gigs when I was growing up. A few years passed by and Buddy needed a bass player. Buddy wanted me. I was 18. Chicago was a whole different world for me. Got to meet Muddy Waters. I was so excited to meet him. I got to play with Muddy, and I couldn’t wait to get off stage so I could call my father and tell him I played with Muddy.

“I stayed with Buddy for about a year and a half. One thing that interested me was that a lot of guys around Chicago who were mediocre players and singers were getting contracts in Europe. Bells started going off in my head. I started writing my own music and bought myself a guitar. I started shedding on the guitar. I wasn’t interested in playing the bass with Buddy Guy anymore. I moved to Toronto for a while and I worked on my own stuff.”

And the rest is blues history. Now at the age of 62, Neal even takes a break now and then.

“This is my first time I’m enjoying my house even though I bought it 37 years ago,” he says. “Man, I never knew how nice the place was until now because I was always on the road. The road is part of my genes. I’m in it forever. I probably do 100 dates a year. I used to do 250, 260. But I’m enjoying being home now. This year is my first time ever going on vacation.”

Granted, there are vacations and then there are vacations. And his first one is a dandy, not something experienced by 99.9 percent of the world’s population.

“I’m going to Mick Jagger’s house on Mustique (a pristine and private West Indies island), spending two-and-a-half weeks with Mick on his estate,” Neal explains. “He invited some more musicians and we’ll be doing some jamming on the beach. I’ve been all over the world but never took the time to take a vacation. I met the Stones way back in the 1970s when I was with Buddy Guy. They love swamp blues.”

Still, it’s difficult to picture Mick Jagger wrestling a Louisiana alligator.

“(Stones bass guitarist) Bill Wyman and I have stayed friends ever since then,” Neal says. “He was always amazed at my bass playing. I still play the bass at times in my shows. I do all my fancy popping and pulling the strings like I used to do.”

The blues indeed are transformative. There have been a number of fantastic British blues singers and not one of them sings with a British accent.

Of course, when Neal isn’t taking one-of-a-kind vacations, he’s not just sitting on the front porch or grouting the bathtub when he’s home.

“I have my studio here now at the house and it’s just a place for musicians to come and record and live and get some good food,” he says. “I opened up my own record label last year and it’s been great. Booga Music. I used to call my son Booga when he was a little baby.”

Neal hasn’t released an album since Bloodline.

“I’m not the type of person who feels I have to put a record out every year and write a song just to have an album,” he says. “It’s got to come from my heart. I have to feel it. It’s got to be real. You take pride in what you do. Like they say, serve no wine before its time.

“But I do have a real nice acoustic CD I’m releasing in a couple months called Feed Your Soul. You come here to Louisiana and feed your soul with the food, the culture and all the stuff we do right here in Louisiana. I’m also working on one for Kenny Neal Live with the Band. But I just can’t rush it.”

Speaking of his band, a number of siblings have played with him over the years. Two still do.

“I have my two youngest brothers with me now,” he says. “The two baby brothers who have been with me for over 25 years. Frederick is the keyboard player and Darnell plays the bass. (Longtime friend Bryan Morris has been playing drums for Kenny since 2005).”

Broke, brokenhearted or betrayed? There’s a blues song for every hardship in life. The old adage that a shared sorrow is half a sorrow may explain why singing or hearing the blues is so good for us.

The wondrous thing about the blues is its deeply profound effect on mood. If you’re listening to great blues, you can do anything without irritation …. even such mind-numbing, grit-your-teeth endeavors such as memorizing the dictionary or alphabetizing your canned goods. Heck, you can even eat beets with a smile on your face while drenched with the blues.

Being the consummate bluesman, Kenny Neal knew all that intellectually. Now he owns it emotionally.

Fate lifted the gate just a crack on his life, just enough to waft in an ample chunk of torment.

“I lost my brother Noel, who played with James Cotton, two years ago from a heart attack,” he explains. “I lost another brother from liver cancer. I’ve been through the ringer, man. I lost my baby sister. Her boyfriend murdered her.

“At one point I lost three family members in 11 months. My daughter died, my father died four months later and then my sister got murdered. After I buried my sister, I found out in 2004 that I was dealing with Hepatitis C. I was at Stage IV. Thank God I was at Palo Alto at Stanford University. The professors and doctors saved my life.

“I took the treatments in 2004 and 2005. I went through 58 weeks of treatments. I took interferon. I had to inject myself every Monday. I was taking 37 pills a week. Now they have a pill you can take for a couple weeks or something and it’ll knock it right out.

“After that happened to me, I was talking to myself about how life is so unpredictable, but the one thing I know for sure I’ve got to let life flow. I wrote it down. After I started to feel better from my treatments, I checked my notes and I wrote a song behind that.”

A song hatched from such a crucible can be a creative therapeutic.

“It touched so many people,” Neal explains. “I write about real things in life that people can relate to with everyday life. It brings joy to me to be able to do that. It’s like therapy to my fans.

“The blues changed for me after my illness. I stopped writing a lot about my baby gone and left me and I’m drowning in my own tears. I started writing about real life when I wrote the song ‘Let Life Flow’ (the title track on his 2008 album Let Life Flow).

“Blues wasn’t made to make you feel sad. Blues was made to make you feel better after you express yourself. You vent. When you’re singing the blues, you’re getting rid of the negative inside and what you’re going through in the hard times. Once you do that, you feel better. That’s what the blues is about. Getting it off your chest.”

When toxic times ooze into your life, listen to some Kenny Neal swamp blues for some Southern comfort.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Maysa up close

By Mike Zielinski

Grammy-nominated Maysa, the incomparable jazz, soul, R&B and funk vocalist with the instantly identifiable honey-toned mezzo-soprano and an undeniably brilliant and magnetic stage presence, has lived such a storybook life that apparently her guardian angel hasn’t blown a wing.

Maysa also excels at multitasking.

While being interviewed for this story, she also was playing slots in a Maryland casino.

“I like to play slots but I’m really terrible at it,” she says. “But I’m winning now. I just won a thousand dollars.”

Jackpot!

Continuing the multitasking narrative, Maysa also is doing triple duty during the 30th anniversary Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest as presented by the Berks Arts Council.

She is performing with Pieces of a Dream along with Justin-Lee Schultz on Friday, March 27, at 9:30 p.m.; Celebrating the Music of Stevie Wonder at 70 on Saturday, April 4, at 1 p.m.; and with Incognito on Saturday, April 4 at 9:30 p.m. — all at the DoubleTree by Hilton Reading Grand Ballroom.

“It’s really cool to be in three performances at Berks Jazz Fest,” she says. “It means a lot to me that they think enough of me to want me to do that. It’s amazing that Berks Jazz Fest is turning 30.

“I love Berks. It’s like a homecoming. You see all your friends you don’t get to see a lot on the road. It feels like they bring us all together and we all hang out and it’s really cool. It’s really nice. I love the area. I love Reading. I love the shopping and it has a Main Street hometown kind of feel. They say it’s a dangerous city, but I always feel safe there.”

Maysa is perfect to be a part of the tribute to Stevie Wonder along with Chris “Big Dog” Davis, Rick Braun, Kimberly Brewer, Eric Darius, Nick Colionne, Ragan Whiteside, Glenn Jones, Art Sherrod Jr. and the DOXA Gospel Ensemble.

Maysa was a member of the world-renowned Morgan State University Choir, which proved pivotal to launching her fairytale career.

Promise and fulfillment don’t always share the same zip code. But in her case, they did.

“Stevie was singing with the Morgan choir,” she says. “He was looking for an alto voice. I auditioned for him. I had one year left in school. I asked him if I could finish school and give my parents my degree and then I would come to California. He agreed. I got my degree in classical vocal performance.”

Within weeks of graduating, she became a part of Stevie Wonder’s backup ensemble, Wonderlove.

“It was amazing being with Stevie Wonder,” Maysa recalls. “It was overwhelming a bit at first, not really knowing what was expected of me. But I adjusted. Stevie was great, very easy to work with. It all panned out.”

Even when she was a passenger in a car that Stevie Wonder was driving. It should go without saying, but for the one or two of you out there who may not know, Stevie Wonder is blind.

“We were leaving the studio and they told us to get in the back,” she says. “This time his body double walked Stevie over to the driver’s side. Stevie drove down the driveway a little bit in a parking lot. He did OK. But I was breathing loudly. I didn’t know what was going on.”

Score another assist for Maysa’s guardian angel.

Maysa’s peerless vocalizing highlighted by her amazingly rich, evocative vocal tone once led Stevie to exclaim: “Maysa is WONDERful!”

After a few years musically supporting Wonder, Maysa auditioned by telephone for the lead voice in Incognito, which is recognized as one of the best funk/jazz/soul groups in the world and has been for over 40 years.

Hired on the spot, she was on a plane, $10 in her pocket, to record with the band in London within the week. The first single with the new vocalist, “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing” in 1992, gave Maysa immediate international recognition. She was 26.

She also was the featured voice on Incognito’s defining hits “Still A Friend of Mine” and “Deep Waters.” She then launched a concurrent solo career with the hits “Am I Wrong (For Lovin’ You),” “Friendly Pressure” and “Hypnotic Love.”

Incognito’s lasting popularity is remarkable because the music industry often is a disposable society. They want things to burn fast and burn bright and then dump the ashes before they soil their shoes.

Asked to explain Incognito’s longevity, Maysa, who still sings with the band on its American tours, says: “(Bandleader) Bluey (Maunick) creates real music despite all the gimmicks and trends today. Just staying true to the music and staying true to yourself is the key.

“There is a big audience out there that the music industry ignores. The music industry has gotten into a feeding frenzy with these young kids and what kind of gimmicks they have and what can they make a lot of money off real quick instead of focusing on the people who have kept real music alive. They act like they don’t exist anymore. That they don’t matter.”

Of Pieces of a Dream, Maysa says: “I perform with Pieces occasionally, perhaps once a year. We’ve been doing it for so long it’s rather seamless.

“I like performing with others and performing solo. When I feel like being the boss and feel like having my voice heard about certain issues, I like going solo. But there are times when I just want to be like a kid, go out and sing and not worry about anything. No stress. Just show up and sing. That’s kind of fun. Then there are times when I want to perform solo and get my messages out. It’s kind of on me then.”

It would be criminally remiss for any author of a Maysa story to not mention THE VOICE.

Listening to her voice, the compelling impulse is to remove the hinge on the door that opens tomorrow and remain in the moment, unwilling to bid bon voyage to today.

Her sound is, well, so incredibly, deliciously Maysa.

She is the kind of singer who takes hold of a song and enraptures her audience in the palm of her hands, as she delivers lyrics, phrases, melodies and harmonies in a way that only she can. Her alluring vocals, candor, humor and purity of sound are exquisite.

She has the stylistic range to encompass jazz, soul, R&B and funk in her performances. She’s in her element in live settings, moving from musical style to musical style, classics to originals, past to present.

Her raw sensuality is every bit as powerful as a sharp broadsword.

“People tell me they make babies or they make up to my music,” she says. “That’s cool.”

Many consider her to be the greatest soul-jazz singer of her generation.

Her voice is a treasure and she is diligent about preserving it and maintaining the perfect pitch cascading like subline electrons from her tongue.

“I developed my voice more in college at Morgan State and listened a lot to Sara Vaughan, Chaka Khan, Ella Fitzgerald, Carmen McRae, Billie Holiday,” Maysa says. “My voice further developed over the years.

“I don’t smoke, drink or do drugs. Never have. That’s a big part of it. I try to take care of myself. I try to exercise as much as I can. I try to keep it hydrated. I drink a lot of water. I do it with apple cider vinegar, honey and water in a combination I do. Try to eat well. Eat on show days. If I don’t eat, my voice gets strange.”

Her guardian angel helps out by sprinkling that unforgettable voice with celestial stardust.

Besides being the numerical benchmark for perfect vision, 2020 is important to Maysa.

“It’s my 25th year as a solo artist in 2020,” she explains. “And 29 years with Incognito.”

To mark the milestone occasion, Maysa is creating her untitled 14th studio album for her new record label Blue Velvet Soul Records.

“I haven’t come up with a name for my album,” she says. “I’m trying to get more of the album under my belt. I haven’t had a chance to write because I’ve been working a lot. And mentally I just couldn’t get it together. Sometimes writers go through that.

“But I’m on the case and will be working hard to pull it all together. By next summer I’ll have it together. I would like to have it come out August 29th on my own label because on August 29th,1995 my first album (Maysa) was released. I’m the boss on this one.

“I will try everything in my power to make this album my masterpiece. It will be soulful, spiritual, danceable and sensual. That’s what is taking me so long.”

Maysa likes to be in control.

“I’m kind of sort of my own manager and PR person,” she explains. “I have one person, a consultant who helps me with things I can’t do myself. I work real very hard. I have to do everything myself pretty much. It’s been that way the whole time. Since I started. It’s just is what it is. I’m just grateful that I can still do this.

“Lately I’ve been getting sick of the traveling. I’m older now (53). Traveling is a lot of wear and tear on your body. It really is. But I can’t imagine a life without performing.

“I’m grateful to be in this industry and relevant at this age. I ask God to please let me do this the rest of my life. I don’t take anything for granted. I don’t take the audience for granted. I don’t take the people who hire me for granted. I try to give my worth. I work hard and make sure 100 percent that the audience and the promoter get their money’s worth.

“Absolutely some of the happiest moments in my life are performing on stage and recording in the studio. I love it all. But performing live is the ultimate. I get the chance to really be with people, talk with them and get the feedback on how they enjoyed themselves. All those things are important.”

Life on the road takes its toll. But the rewards of her profession are rich in ways that transcend mere money.

Maysa has had a full and accomplished career stuffed with international tours, major television appearances, national awards, positive reviews, chart-topping movie soundtracks, personal recordings and musical collaborations with some of the best jazz and R&B musicians in the industry.

Her mark in music is indelible, making it impossible for anyone to brush aside the cloudburst of fame that has hovered over all of her adult life.

Inevitably all verbs become past tense in life. But Maysa remains very much in the present. With her guardian angel at her side.

Berks Jazz Fest artist Bennie Sims up close

By Mike Zielinski

Music has been the strongest adhesive in Bennie Sims’ life.

He realized a long time ago that he couldn’t take off his love for music like an overcoat.

He and his bass, upright or guitar, are tethered to each other. For him, going through life without a bass makes as much sense as going to the hunt without a gun.

“When I first remember hearing music, it wasn’t good enough to just listen to it,” he says. “I had to do it. I was just intrigued by the feeling that playing music gave me. The joy that it brought. It was funny how the notes would speak to you. Whichever musical phrase you played, the emotion it would evoke. It moved me in a way that I wanted to experience that as much as I could. It still is that way for me.”

That emotion, that passion fueled him to become a highly regarded bassist, performer, music director, bandleader, producer, composer and educator.

Sims has worked with countless A-list artists throughout his career, including Al Jarreau, Aretha Franklin, Lou Rawls, The Spinners, The Temptations, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, Tower of Power, Pieces of a Dream, The Three Degrees and Dizzy Gillespie.

Oh, one more thing to add to his glittering resume. A very big thing.

Bennie Sims is the 2020 winner of the Frank Scott Award that is presented annually by the Berks Arts Council, an honor that perpetually shines a light on Sims’ work and ensures that it won’t drift into the mists of yesterday.

The award was founded and is sponsored by the Jerlyn Foundation, led by Carolyn and Jerry Holleran, longtime friends of iconic local jazz musician Frank Scott (1923-1995).

The award honors Scott’s memory and his contribution to the jazz heritage in Berks County. Scott, a renowned saxophonist, opened two nightclubs in the Reading area and played with musicians such as Bing Crosby, Ray Charles and Bill Haley and the Comets.

Sims’ selection as the latest Frank Scott Award winner is marvelously fitting. Frankie Scott to Bennie Sims is like the swoosh to Nike.

“Frankie was a big influence on me as a youngster,” Sims explains. “The first time he heard me play he held me in high regard. He encouraged me to keep getting better, to move forward and improve. Later I played on one of Frankie’s albums, Never Too Old to Dream.

“I’m playing upright bass now. I didn’t play upright bass when Frankie was alive. He always wanted me to play upright. At that time I was working so much and so busy traveling that I didn’t have the time to learn the instrument. But now I’ve been playing the upright for about nine years. If Frankie could see that now, I think he’d be pretty proud of that.

“This will be my 29th year at Berks Jazz Fest. The first year (pianist/vocalist) Cliff (Starkey) and I were in Japan with The Three Degrees. Frankie did the first year of the festival. The next two years Cliff and I did it with Frankie. Frankie was the attraction at the time.

“At the time my playing had evolved, I was playing well, and he really was enthusiastic about my play,” Sims continues. “He would say, you cats have the feel, man. It’s hard to find ‘em, man. It was great to hear him play and his deliberate jazz approach to playing ballads was amazing to me. He played beautifully. I remember thinking that someday I will own the music like he owned it.

“I hope he’s looking down and he sees what I’m doing now with a big smile on his face. He encouraged me all the time. It’s pretty cool.”

The Groovemasters featuring Sims, Starkey and saxophonist/vocalist Erich Cawalla are the incredibly popular stars of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest annual Harold B. Leifer Memorial Kickoff Luncheon.

This year it’s Friday, March 27, at 11:30 a.m. Once again, the Peanut Bar Restaurant promises to be jammed to the rafters with folks sardined in along with the peanut shells.

Sadly, a lot of folks in Berks County know Bennie Sims’ work only by his performances with The Groovemasters or with Starkey and/or Cawalla and others in various gigs.

They have no idea that the man has toured the world playing his trusty bass guitar, was the musical director of The Three Degrees for 28 years prior to retiring from them two years ago when he pulled back on touring, and still writes and produces top-selling jazz albums.

“I’m part of a No. 1 jazz album from Pieces of Dream in 2019,” Sims says. “The album is called On Another Note. I co-wrote a song on it and co-produced a song on it. I’ve done many albums through the years with them. I played with them for years and I never stopped producing and writing with them. Every record I’ve ever done with them has been in the top five or six. Once again there’s a bit of information that nobody knows about me.”

Sims is low profile by design. He’s no strutting peacock. Unlike most musical artists, he has no website and posts limited personal information on Facebook.

That’s because even though music is etched into his body and soul, he has a persona besides the musical artist. He is not one of those musicians who off stage are not so much dull as non-existent.

“I never did talk about what I do, as far as the success I may have had and all that,” he explains. “If I’m not doing music, I’m not talking about it a lot. I’m not pushing it on people. I just become regular old Bennie then. One of the reasons is because I didn’t start playing at an early age. I still know how to be a guy who is not totally consumed by music. It’s not all I know. I was an athlete and things like that.

“I was about 16 when I started playing music. I had wanted to play ever since I was 3 or 4 years old. My mother was not for it. She didn’t want me to do it. My mom is a religious woman and she didn’t see it as a good direction for me to go in.

“I totally disagreed with her. Once I got a job, I bought my first bass guitar on my own. She is very accepting of it now. But she wasn’t. Because it started so late, maybe it was a blessing that she didn’t. I can see the pros and cons of starting earlier for sure. But the one thing it has allowed me to be is just a regular guy when I’m not on stage or doing other things in the musical world.”

Granted, his down time is limited. After all, he has an uproarious appetite for music. Including extending its legacy to ensuing generations.

As an educator to inner-city kids over the years, he knows that those lessons can throttle hope and discipline that transcend music into his students. They absorb the music a chord at a time and little breezes of transformation waft in.

“This past summer I taught a class at a summer school for kids,” Sims says. “I taught quite a few years with the after-school program with Josh Taylor and Cliff Starkey.

“The best thing I ever did was a PAL program we did with Reggie Brown. We did a summer program where we taught the kids Broadway. That probably was the most rewarding … nothing touched my heart like that gig did. By the end of summer we had those kids singing songs from Rent and everything and dancing.

“Those inner-city kids had no idea what this music was and what this Broadway stuff was. To see the light come on in their eyes and the performance that they gave at the end of the program and see the reaction by their peers — all their brothers, sisters, cousins and friends who were there. Those kids were running up afterward asking for the performers’ autographs. Those kids went to school the following year and they all did much better in school.

“When people ask me what was the favorite gig I ever did, that summer program was my favorite. I will never forget it as long as I live. That was the moment I knew how great and powerful music was. The impression it made on those children and how far away it was from their culture.”

Sims knows only too well that music erects a trestle for his students to cross that chasm between squandering their lives and fulfilling their lives. Which is why he is a passionate advocate for better music programs in schools.

“The powers-to-be in schools are missing the boat on the power and the positive influence music has on children,” he says. “It’s mind-boggling to witness it. I can’t see how why we aren’t doing more as a society to bring music into their lives. It’s stunning to see the effect it has on these kids.

“Especially with inner-city kids and knowing the demons they are going to run across. To be able to show them something else and they can do it and the sense of accomplishment they get, it’s very powerful, man, it’s powerful.”

Nowadays, Sims finds himself catching rifts of retrospection.

“I love performing, producing and writing,” he says. “I love my Groovemasters and I love my funky feeling and my funky music. I’ll always want to do that. But I don’t want to do that every time I walk out the door.

“I’m really into the jazz thing and the upright bass thing. Which is more of my roots. I grew up listening to that stuff. My mother’s funny. As much as my mother didn’t want me to be a musician, she loved music tremendously. The exposure to jazz that she gave me was awesome.

“The first time she ever saw me perform I opened for Dizzy Gillespie. And she turned me onto Dizzy Gillespie when I was a kid. That was quite a moment for me. And I didn’t even know she was there. She was extremely proud. That was the moment she realized that it was OK that I was in music.”

Bennie’s heart couldn’t have felt any warmer from his mother’s acknowledgement if you had wrapped it in Saran Wrap.

“At my age now I tend to look back and realize the things that I’ve accomplished,” he relates. “When you’re doing it you don’t really realize it. You do what you do. What I was doing was a natural progression of things. I did what I wanted to do. To me that was the most important thing. I did what I wanted to do. I wanted to do music. I still want to do music. You don’t retire from music. I’m not going to retire.

“But the transition is that I’ve becoming more of a producer and engineer now. So that part of my musicality is getting into more focus because I have a lot more to learn there. And I’m getting too old for lugging around equipment now. I’m into producing, composing and engineering it. I love it. It’s like learning a new instrument. I’m going to do this to I die.”

Bennie Sims is as sharp as a pinprick. And just like a pin, always to the point.

“But it wasn’t about making Frankie Scott or my mother happy,” he says candidly. “It was about me being happy. I worked at Firestone for five years and that was not happy. I knew I couldn’t do that much longer. I felt like an empty vessel. I said to myself, I can’t do this. The only thing that made me happy was the bass.

“When the opportunity presents itself (doing music full-time), I’m going to take the plunge and do this. The bass made me happy.”

And when he took that plunge years ago, he dove deep. And surfaced with a happy life bursting with sunbeams on him and his bass.

“To be able to turn to that whenever you are feeling sad or down or angry and be able to turn to that, it was therapy, man,” he says, his voice growing softer. “It kept me together.

“If I die today, I know I did my thing, man. I did it. I lived the way I wanted to live. And no one can take that from me now. That’s really important. At my age, I can look back and go, that’s my life. You can really see it. Look at what I’ve left behind. The blood, sweat and tears of it all. I’m feeling pretty good.”

Talk about goosebumps.

Berks Jazz Fest artists The Brubeck Brothers up close

By Mike Zielinski

Genius fascinates. Originality captivates. Inventiveness motivates.

Imagine being the sons of a living legend like Dave Brubeck, growing up with him, performing all over the world with him, and keeping him alive through his transcendent music years after his death.

Welcome to the awesome world of Chris and Dan Brubeck, two richly talented artists themselves.

The Brubeck Brothers will celebrate their father’s centennial during the 30th anniversary edition of the Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest presented by the Berks Arts Council on Saturday, April 4, 7 p.m., at the Miller Center for the Arts.

It will be the Brubeck Brothers Quartet’s fourth performance at the Berks Jazz Fest. Dave Brubeck performed twice in the festival.

The dynamic Brubeck Brothers Quartet is completed by guitarist Mike DeMicco and pianist Chuck Lamb, with Dan on drums and Chris on bass and trombone.

It will be an extraordinary performance. Chris and Dan will have the audience traveling along the timeline of Dave Brubeck’s extraordinary life and career by sharing incredible stories about Dave and performing his uniquely innovative music.

The celestial majesty of it all is that Dave really has never left their sons’ lives.

“We felt that way ever since he passed away,” Chris explains. “The closer I was to doing concerts when he had just died, I would have a more emotional experience. In 2013 we were playing at the Detroit Jazz Festival doing one of my dad’s religious pieces that had jazz improv, too.

“We are playing outdoors on a big stage and there is orchestra and chorus and it was a beautiful day with a 100,000-watt giant modern PA system and the choir is rocking off all the buildings in downtown Detroit. I looked up to the clouds and I had tears in my eyes and thought it was so amazing we were keeping Dave’s music alive and that he is so alive because of his music.

“On top of that we’re kind of in a unique situation because when he was alive, we were playing his music with him all the time. In terms of us extending his legacy, there is nothing artificial about it because we already were an extension of his legacy both genetically and professionally and maybe me most of all because I also worked with him a lot co-composing pieces.

“My biggest fish to fry are composing deadlines for other projects as well as carrying on Dave’s tradition. Wonderfully insane. A lot going on because of Dave’s anniversary.”

Chris is a gifted composer in his own right, a profession and passion that keeps him hyperactively immersed in music. After all, he is a Brubeck. Chris and Dan have been making music together practically all their lives.

It’s a simple sanity that water gives life. It is, after all, the essence of life. Without water, there is no life. With the Brubecks, there is no life without music.

“I can’t imagine life without music,” Chris relates. “There was never a moment I felt like I was doing something I wasn’t meant to do. I didn’t want to play piano when I was 5 years old because he was really good at it, but my dad wanted me to play piano because some day I might want to be a composer and he wanted me to understand treble clef and bass clef and rhythmic notation so I would know the language to convey the ideas that would blossom in my head.

“Dave was never a taskmaster with us. A lot of people presume that Dave taught us a lot about music. But the reality was that he was gone all the time on tour. So he wasn’t our teacher. We had other music teachers. But there always was general encouragement.

“Some people have curly hair. Some have buck teeth. We have some sort of musical genes going on. Karmically it’s just not DNA. I think we were born into this family for some kind of reason as opposed to just randomness that all my brothers turned out to be musicians and had a lot of talent in their blood.”

Indeed, the Brubeck Brothers inherited their father’s creativity, technique and improvisational abilities.

Although their music is rooted in straight-ahead jazz, their concerts reveal an inherent ability to explore and play odd-time signatures while naturally integrating the influences of funk, blues and world music.

The group’s creativity, technique and improvisation can be heard in their uncompromising music, which reflects their dedication to melody, rhythm, culture and the spontaneous spirit of jazz.

Said All About Jazz: “The Brubeck Brothers Quartet attains that rarefied level where music is both relaxed and expressive, and their joy in its creation is contagious. There’s really nothing out there that comes close to their unique brand of inventiveness.”

In many ways Dave Brubeck is like the handle of a whip in their music — every movement ripples back to him. But his sons’ music is not necessarily bivouacked with yesterday.

Dave Brubeck, of course, needs no introduction to anyone who has ever heard a lick of music. He was a one-of-a-kind pianist and composer who helped make jazz popular again in the 1950s and ’60s with recordings like Time Out, the first jazz album to sell a million copies, and “Take Five,” the still instantly recognizable hit single that was that album’s centerpiece.

Dave, who died one day shy of his 92nd birthday in 2012, performed until a ripe old age. Some men would be content to lean back and admire such a legendary footprint of accomplishment. He wanted to lay down another.

He was designated a “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress. He was one of the most active and popular musicians in both the jazz and classical worlds.

With a career that spanned over six decades, his experiments in odd-time signatures, improvised counterpoint, polyrhythm and polytonality remain hallmarks of innovation. He was one of the foremost exponents of cool jazz. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards. His style ranged from refined to bombastic, reflecting his classical training and improvisational skills.

In 2009 Dave received the prestigious Kennedy Center Award, which President Barack Obama bestowed on him on his 89th birthday.

Dave brought a distinctive mixture of experimentation and accessibility that won over listeners. Besides experimenting with time signatures and polytonality he explored musical theater and the oratorio, baroque compositional devices and foreign modes.

Outside of his famous originals, which had the charm and durability of pop songs (“Blue Rondo a la Turk,” “It’s a Raggy Waltz” and “Take Five”), some of his best work was in overhauls of standards like “You Go to My Head,” “All the Things You Are” and “Pennies From Heaven.”

Great music, like great karma, sticks like glue. There were no limits to his musical dominion.
Perhaps lost in the foggy mists of time is that it’s ironic that Dave Brubeck became a musical genius and pioneer. Why? Because he was a tough as rawhide, ride-the-range cowboy. Picture the young Clint Eastwood in Rawhide. It appeared Dave’s destiny was cattle, not jazz.

Chris picks up the historical narrative:

“Dave literally was a cowboy tough as nails at first,” he explains. “Somehow his mother was a classically trained pianist who studied in Europe. My dad played the piano as a young boy. He had two older brothers who turned out to be musicians. So my father was my grandfather’s last hope to continue the cattle tradition in the family.

“Dave went to college as a veterinary major. When Dave was young, he was cross-eyed and probably had some sort of dyslexia. He always was very bad at reading music. When he was taking a chemistry class, he mixed the wrong two things and the wrong portions and he damn near blew up the lab.

“Already at that point by ear he was playing sort of swing bands and jazzy kind of stuff. His chemistry teacher told my father that his mind and heart were into music, to get out of there, go across campus and go to the music school.

“When he went to music school, within a short time everyone believed he was the most talented person they ever had in their music school. Which was fine until the final written exam which he couldn’t hear — he had such great ears. He was relying totally on what music looked like on the page and getting asked theoretical questions and he flunked it.

“The faculty had this meeting wondering what they going to do with this guy. He’s the most talented person we ever had in this school and he flunked the written part of the exam. He should be failed. Others said you can’t fail a guy who is unbelievably talented. So they went to the dean above them and they made a deal. They would give him a degree, but he had to promise to never teach music.

“My dad never felt bitter. He thought he got off good getting his degree. He never did teach music directly. But he taught millions of people a lot about music. He’s got about 40 honorary degrees from Yale and different universities.

“Ironically at the University of Pacific there are plaques where he met my mom and there are streets named after him and programs because of his impact on the musical world. That’s why he wanted me to learn the piano so I wouldn’t be saddled with the same inability to read music.

“So how did Dave manage to write 20 major oratorios (large-scale musical works for orchestra and voices)? He trained himself to write these big pieces. As an adult he learned how to read music better by composing music. He taught himself later in life to master all that.”

The magnitude of that accomplishment is somewhat staggering.

There had been two distinct camps fighting for Dave’s soul. His dad wanted him to be a cattleman. His mom wanted him to be a musician. In the end, Dave’s dyslexia twisted his fate.

And the world is better for it.

“One of Dave’s theories of why he and his brothers all turned out to be musicians even though they were in a ranch in the middle of nowhere in a town of 105 people was because their mom would be practicing Chopin, DeBussy, List and Rachmanioff all day long,” Chris says. “As she gets more and more pregnant her belly is touching the piano and that wood is going into her womb that is filled with fluid and those babies had a nine-month head start in music because she would play five, six hours a day.

“The other thing was because my dad was riding a horse in the vast emptiness of a 40,000-acre ranch in California he would come up with these little musical games, including thinking about polyrhythms like counting five against four and the horse would walk at four. Or when it got too hot, there would be a place with a pump that was run by a windmill that had a certain kind of rhythm inherent in the mechanics. He’d get under the barrel for some shade and he would listen to what he thought was a 5/4 rhythm. He developed his own take on his art form because he was so isolated.”

The intervention of fate once again had a heavy hand on the keyboard of Dave’s life.

“My dad was in Patton’s Third Army,” Chris says. “Talk about twists of fate and predestination. Because my dad grew up on a ranch and could shoot, he was assigned to be a rifleman. Dave was near the frontlines at the Battle of the Bulge.

“He was near the Army depot and a truck pulled up with USO girls who had arrived to do a show for the troops. The brass knew that the German Panzer divisions were coming in the next day or two and the Apocalypse was at hand. Turns out they needed a piano player. My dad is sitting on his helmet, raises his hand and volunteers to give it a shot. He plays his ass off.

“A guy by the name of Colonel Brown hears him and doesn’t want my dad to get his ears shattered by artillery or get killed or have his hands blown off. So he gives my dad a special order to find fellow musicians and leave as soon as he can. Colonel Brown says it’s more important for you to make music for the world than go to the frontlines.”

The Battle of the Bulge was the bloodiest battle for U.S. forces in World War II. According to the Department of Defense, American forces suffered 89,500 casualties, including 19,000 killed, 47,500 wounded and 23,000 captured or missing.

The musical world owes a debt of gratitude to Colonel Brown, who altered Brubeck’s life and likely saved it.

Another transformative figure in Dave Brubeck’s life was Darius Mihad, a French-born Jewish composer/conductor/teacher who came to America to escape the Nazis. His compositions were influenced by jazz and Brazilian music and made extensive use of polytonality.

“The teacher he was able to study with was Darius Mihad under the G.I. Bill after World War II,” Chris says. “Mihad was a real genius. He respected jazz and asked my dad why he wanted to study with him.

”My father said, ‘Because I lived through World War II and I know I have a big piece in my heart and soul that I want to write because of the horrors I’ve seen in World War II to explore the teaching of Jesus Christ and make it a big concert setting. I can’t see how people who believe in the same God and the same Jesus could do that to each other. I want to work with Biblical text to get people to see the hypocrisy and maybe relive what Jesus said, which was to love your enemy, not blow them up.’

“My dad wanted to learn orchestration from Mihad, who was a master at it. My father wanted to make exciting European orchestra music. But Mihad said that he and his French composer friends all thought American jazz was interesting and exciting, like boogie-woogie.

“The piece Dave wrote was The Light In The Wilderness and was recorded by the Cincinnati Symphony and toured the world with university choirs and got a good review in Time magazine.

Speaking of Time, Dave made the magazine’s cover on Nov. 8, 1954. The cover story described his sound as some of the strangest and loveliest music ever played since jazz was born.

By 1959 the jazz maestro became a veritable rock star with the release of the album Time Out on Columbia Records, much to the amazement of some Columbia executives who fought against its release because they were convinced it had all the commercial appeal of a lullaby performed by a rhinoceros headbutting a boulder.

“There was nothing calculated about Dave becoming a big commercial success,” explains Chris. “The tracks on that album were very original and fresh. ‘Take Five’ is lots of solos and not much chord changes. Maybe America was ready for that. The record company didn’t even want to put it out.

“Goddard Lieberson, who they called ‘God,’ was head of Columbia Records. He was a musician, not a bean counter. The marketing people thought the album was doomed for failure. Sometimes your originality just hits at the right time and you’re recognized for it.”

Time Out was intended as an experiment using musical styles Brubeck discovered abroad while on a U.S. Department of State-sponsored tour of Eurasia, such as when he observed in Turkey a group of street musicians performing a traditional Turkish folk song that was played in 9/8 time, a rare meter for Western music.

The album received negative reviews by critics upon its release, So much for critics.
It became one of the best-known and biggest-selling jazz albums, charting highly on the popular albums chart at a time when 50,000 units sold for a jazz album was impressive. It consequently produced a Top 40 hit single in “Take Five,” composed by Paul Desmond, and the one track not written by Brubeck.

“God” had made the right call and Brubeck now was a musical god. The divine thing about becoming a musical god is that you have life everlasting here on earth.

Long live Sinatra. Long live Elvis. Long live Dave Brubeck.

“The first time I realized my dad was a man of some prominence was in the 1960s when we were in a diner in New Jersey with a jukebox,” recalls Chris. “They had Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles, Elvis and Dave Brubeck with ‘Take Five.’ Wow! My dad made the jukebox! He must be some serious sh-t.

“I’ll tell you another big highlight in the same contour. Years later I was recording with the London Symphony Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios when I found out that Paul McCartney knew that Chris Brubeck played the bass and I was invited to meet him. I loved the Beatles.

“To hear Paul McCartney say that he and John Lennon used to listen to ‘Take Five’ trying to figure out how my dad worked that out and saying that my father was a great genius. That is an affirmation of some kind of status.”

In his closing comment, Chris mentioned that the last time the Brubeck Brothers Quartet performed in the Berks Jazz Fest it was with the Reading Pops Orchestra in 2016.

“My dad was the first guy to say that classical orchestras and jazz musicians can play together,” he noted.

Of course he was. He was – and is – Dave Brubeck.