Grand Marais -- what does it make you think of? Sailboats? Carved spoons? Fish? Maybe Betsy Bowen's woodcuts, Howard Sivertson's history paintings ... but jazz? Not until now.
Though the Grand Marais Jazz Festival has been around since 2003, it was never a big part of the little resort town's image. But this year the Fest is going for broke. With two national headliners -- Tony Monaco and Avishai Cohen -- playing very different styles of jazz, and a dozen other artists of regional note, this weekend's festival bids fair to put Grand Marais on anyone's map of Midwest jazz events.
The founder of the 2003 festival, Mike Raymond, loves jazz and hosts WTIP Community Radio's Jazz Show. He said he's happy the Cook County Events and Visitors Bureau took over the jazz mantle. He and his volunteers had brought musicians such as Karen Allison and steel drummer Othello Molineaux to town, but had trouble getting funds to book artists of Cohen's and Monaco's stature.
"Other beautiful places like Newport, Monterrey -- they have very successful jazz festivals. It seemed like a nice thing to come to in the shoulder season of spring," Raymond said. "We've always combined it with the art galleries, and this year we're really featuring lodges and restaurants as well. It's much more of a countywide effort -- which is why we're running the free shuttle. So you can just park your car and enjoy it."
That might be a good idea -- if you scan the schedule online at www.GrandMaraisJazzFest.com , you'll see that there are gigs scheduled from one end of the county to the other, from Grand Portage to Lutsen, from Friday through Sunday. But the headliners both play Saturday night, at two different locales that you can shuttle between: the superb trumpeter Avishai Cohen blows with his band Triveni at the Arrowhead Center for the Arts in Grand Marais at 7 p.m. Right after, head to Papa Charlie's at Lutsen to catch Tony Monaco, one of the reigning kings of the Hammond B3 organ, at 9:30.
For those who are unfamiliar with the fame of the Hammond B3, Monaco can explain. "It's a tone-wheel organ made by Lawrence Hammond. It has its own tradition, started by Jimmy Smith," he said in an MPR interview last month. "The organ becomes its own orchestra." He cited gospel, blues and rock acts such as Emerson Lake and Palmer as genres that use the B3, but reserves his true love for its jazz incarnation. He's played for40 years, and is widely acknowledged as a master of the instrument, famed for the passion he brings to the tradition.
Avishai Cohen is one of two Avishai Cohens in jazz. The Cohen who is coming to Grand Marais plays the trumpet; the other plays bass. Both are Israeli jazz musicians, and apparently the name they share is a common one in Israel. Cohen has played for 20 years, despite being only 30. In an interview for the News Tribune Makers blog, he said he'd begun playing jazz trumpet at age 10.
"I joined a big band in Israel. They were short of trumpet players ... My brother took me with him; most of the cats were older of course, but I started playing there, that's where I began to improvise."
His early classical training seems to have given him a strong respect for tradition -- but in this case, jazz tradition: "For sure jazz is all about tradition; you cannot play jazz without knowing the tradition. I guess it's a language. You can't speak a language without any vocabulary, even if you want to. You listen to the old cats play, you start with Louis Armstrong, and you're good to go. Then you can look for your own voice, but you can't start with that ... To get the feeling, that truth, you have to listen to your mentors. It's very simple."
Chris Gillis is one of the local musicians booked for the festival. He hasn't done the Grand Marais Festival before; he was living in California for the past 25 years and just moved back to Grand Marais two years ago. He'll be playing jazz piano at Betsy Bowen's studio with violinist Max Bichel and singer Carah Thomas on Friday from 5-8 p.m. and at the Grand Portage Lodge on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 5-8 p.m. But for him, jazz in Grand Marais is a personal tradition.
"Really at the core of [jazz here] was my dad Frank Gillis, who was a real icon in the community. He played the Fishermans' Picnic for 30 years running. He was a consummate jazz pianist, played traditional Dixieland jazz with the Doc Evans band. He started playing up here in like 1957, through 1999. Later, he played a regular piano gig at the East Bay. A lot of people found a love of jazz hearing him, and that was likely a reason the idea of a jazz fest started."
Even when the Festival is over, there will be jazz in Grand Marais. "I'm playing the Gunflint Tavern every Sunday night," Gillis said. "Jazz piano, following in the footsteps of my dad."
Ann Klefstad covers arts and entertainment for the Duluth News Tribune. Read her blog, Makers, at www.duluth.com , and at Area voices on www.duluthnewstribune.com . Reach her at email@example.com.