After a backwards few years that saw Boscov’s Berks Jazz Fest 2020 postponed twice due to the COVID-19 pandemic before finally being held in August 2021, festival general manager John Ernesto is delighted that the 2022 festival returns to its traditional spring. slot this year, with travel restrictions and mask mandates a thing of the past.
The 31st installment of the festival kicks off Friday with an opening night celebration featuring the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra with Wynton Marsalis, and lasts 10 days, ending April 10 with a finale featuring Rick Braun and Gerald Albright as well as special guest Jeff Lorber.
The in-between space will be filled with more than 40 ticketed concerts at six local venues, along with another 50-60 free events at clubs and restaurants across Berks County. Ernesto said the number of participating artists easily tops 300, and that includes many of the biggest names in the industry.
As usual, the DoubleTree by Hilton hotel in downtown Reading will serve as ground zero. For the uninitiated, it’s the perfect place to catch the buzz that helps make this festival one of the premier events of its kind in the jazz world, attracting around 35,000 spectators each year.
“What fans love about our festival is the opportunity to interact with the artists and people involved in the festival,” said Ernesto. “The DoubleTree comes to life during the festival. You can go to a restaurant to eat and Rick Braun or Everette Harp, they’re sitting there having lunch and they’re interacting with the fans. It creates a real positive atmosphere.
“One of our goals is to continue to create a family atmosphere with the festival. The people who come every year, we consider them part of our family, and I think that this interaction and this ability to be around everyone and to be really relaxed, it adds an element that makes the experience very special.
“And the staff at DoubleTree do an amazing job of welcoming everyone. They are fully committed to what we do. They are partners with us. It just creates a really special vibe.
Ernesto said this year’s lineup meets the festival’s mission to create a diverse festival featuring various genres of music so that there is something for every music fan.
And what better way to start than with Marsalis, who in 1997 became the first jazz musician to win the Pulitzer Prize for Music? The trumpet player, booked for the Santander Performing Arts Center, headlined the first Berks Jazz Fest in 1991 and will be making his fourth appearance at the festival, as well as performing here last May with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra Septet.
“Any time you get the chance to pitch Wynton at a festival, it’s a good day,” Ernesto said.
On Saturday night at the Santander Performing Arts Center, singer-songwriter Gregory Porter will be a real “get” for the festival. Porter’s smooth, expressive baritone and original songs blending jazz, gospel, soul and blues won him two Grammy Awards for Best Jazz Vocal Album.
“It’s hard to have Gregory on the schedule,” Ernesto said. “His tours in America are limited because he is very popular in Europe. It’s really exploding throughout the industry.
Also on Saturdays, the Yocum Institute for Arts Education hosts an intimate evening of gypsy jazz featuring the Jason Anick & Henry Acker Quartet and the Hot Club of Reading.
“Henry Acker is a child prodigy guitarist who was playing Django (Reinhardt) music before he was 10,” Ernesto said. “He’s 16 now and he’s amazing. And Jason is a world-class violinist.
Ernesto said Hot Club and the foursome will each play a set and then they will all come together for a grand finale.
Other opening weekend highlights include banjo great Bela Fleck performing songs from his latest album, “My Bluegrass Heart,” Saturday night at the Miller Center for the Arts, and the return of pianist and trombonist from contemporary jazz Brian Culbertson with guest saxophonist Marcus. Anderson and his band Sunday night at the Santander Performing Arts Center.
The events follow one another on weeknights, with the Reading Musical Foundation’s Project Penske Jazz Jam next Monday; Bobby Lyle and the Ladies of Song on Tuesday April 5; and The Last Big Band with Larry McKenna and Andrew Neu on Wednesday, April 6, all in the DoubleTree Small Ballroom.
Live jazz is also entitled to its festival, including a concert by the SF JAZZ collective on Wednesday, April 6 at the Miller Center for the Arts. Ernesto said the ensemble includes some of the best traditional jazz artists in the world. Formed in 2004, it honors the music of John Coltrane, Ornette Coleman, Herbie Hancock, Thelonious Monk, Wayne Shorter, McCoy Tyner, Horace Silver, Miles Davis and many more, and also performs original compositions.
On Thursday, April 7, the Chuck Loeb Memorial All Star Jam returns to the DoubleTree Grand Ballroom. The annual event honors the memory of Loeb, a much-loved jazz guitarist and mainstay of the Berks Jazz Fest who died in 2017. Ernesto said this year’s memorial concert will feature a segment featuring the jazz singer and R&B Patti Austin.
On Friday April 8, saxophonist Eric Marienthal will conduct the festival’s 31st anniversary celebration concert at the Scottish Rite Cathedral. Joining Marienthal will be Rick Braun, Keiko Matsui, Brian Bromberg, Everette Harp, Adam Hawley, Lindsey Webster and The Berks Horns. The concert will include a segment dedicated to the late guitarist Nick Colonne, another festival favorite who died on January 1.
On Saturday, April 9, the lineup will highlight programming from Celebrating Women in Jazz at the DoubleTree Grand Ballroom. Dedicated to female singers and instrumentalists and hosted and produced by Chris “Big Dog” Davis, the concert will feature Patti Austin, Maysa, Lindsey Webster, Selina Albright, Jessy J, Karen Briggs, Althea Rene and Marcia Miget.
“The response has been awesome and I’m really excited about this show,” said Ernesto. “Chris Davis is a world-class producer. He knows how to put on a show.
Jake Shimabukuro, the Hawaiian-born ukulele virtuoso who burst onto the scene in 2006 with his viral rendition of George Harrison’s “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” will make his festival debut later that night at the Miller Center. Shimabukuro’s latest album, “Jake and Friends”, pairs him with an array of musicians including Willie Nelson, Moon Taxi, Bette Midler, Kenny Loggins and Jimmy Buffett.
“It’s a little different for a jazz festival, but he’s such an amazing performer on the ukulele,” Erneso said. “His music covers so many genres: jazz, blues, rock, etc.”
Another April 9 highlight is David Sanborn & Friends, with Randy Brecker, Joey DeFrancesco and Billy Kilson performing at the Scottish Rite Catherdral. Over a career spanning six decades, Sanborn has become one of the world’s best-known alto saxophonists, bringing his superb chops to blues, pop, R&B and jazz.
And as the festival draws to a close on Sunday, April 10, Colionne will once again be honored with a brunch and concert at the DoubleTree Grand Ballroom dubbed Nick Colionne’s Friends: A Salute to Nico!
“Nick was a big fan of the festival,” Ernesto said. “He loved coming here. He loved interacting with the fans. He was larger than life and he treated every fan as if they were his biggest fan. … He was great fun to be around. He was so friendly and he loved dressing up in his amazing stage outfits. He was a one of a kind and very fun guy, and we all miss him.
Later in the evening, for fans who still want more, Rick Braun, Gerald Albright and Jeffrey Lorber will perform the festival finale at the Scottish Rite, a fitting way to close things out.
“Every year we want to end the festival on a positive and energetic note,” said Ernesto. “It will be a great way to end the festival. These guys always put on a great show. We want fans to go home in a positive frame of mind to start thinking about 2023.”