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Culture & Artsby Fern Shen11:31 amJun 19, 20230

At 2023 AFRAM: Baltimore Jazz Fest opens more eyes and ears to the music

The city’s annual festival celebrating African American culture featured many musical traditions with home-grown roots – from jazz to Baltimore Club Music to Billie Holiday vocals

Above: Saxophone Colossi gets the crowd up and dancing at the 2023 Baltimore Jazz Fest, held this year in partnership with the city’s AFRAM festival. From left, Brent Birckhead, Tim Green, Lionel Lyles Jr., Alphonso Young (drummer, not visible here), Bhagwan Khalsa and Brad Collins with Eric Byrd on keyboards. (Fern Shen)

A year ago, Baltimore Jazz Fest took place on the grounds of a church in Waverly during the same weekend as the city-sponsored AFRAM festival in Druid Hill Park.

This year its organizers decided to partner with AFRAM, putting on the annual showcase of some of the city’s top jazz talent on the second day of the city’s big festival.

One woman, standing in the shade of a tree listening to a performance of “Moanin,” made famous by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, bobbed her head as the saxophones took turns taking powerful solos.

But she was also a little confused.

“Is this where the Isley Brothers are going to be?” she asked some people nearby.

She was redirected across the park to the main stage where the renowned R&B group would soon be performing.

Upon hearing the Saxophone Colossi: “Wow, they’re really good!”

But referring to the jazz she’d just heard, she declared, “Wow, they’re really good!”

She was right: the Saxophone Colossi yesterday, featuring Brent Birckhead, Tim Green, Brad Collins and Lionel Lyles II with the Eric Byrd Trio performing on the Soul Stage was innovative, soulful and terrific.

Spreading the word about jazz to those who might not have been exposed to it was one of the advantages of holding the event at AFRAM, Anna Celenza, a representative of the Baltimore Jazz Alliance, said.

“We signed up quite a few new members today.”

Other performers included the Girls Night Out big band, the Terry Koger Quintet and Samuel Prather.

Audience kicking back on the grass and in the shade at Druid Hill Park for Baltimore Jazz Fest. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: The audience kicks back yesterday on the grass and in the shade at Druid Hill Park for Baltimore Jazz Fest at AFRAM. BELOW: Brent Birckhead performs on baritone sax as part of Saxophone Colossi. (Fern Shen)

On baritone sax, Brent Birckhead performs as part of Saxophone Colossi at AFRAM yesterday. (Fern Shen)

Juneteenth and Father’s Day

The afternoon jazz show was one part of this year’s AFRAM, Baltimore’s official celebration of Juneteenth.

An annual commemoration of the end of slavery after the Civil War, Juneteenth has been celebrated by African Americans since the late 1800s.

In 2021, President Biden signed legislation that made Juneteenth, which falls on June 19 (today) a federal holiday.

One of the largest African American festivals on the East Coast, AFRAM celebrated its 17th year with artisans, food vendors, community resource tables, face painting and children’s activities, along with musical performances.

A special theme was the designation of Saturday as Baltimore Club Music Day, recognizing the homegrown musical genre whose biggest cheerleader of late has been Mayor Brandon Scott, who grew up with it.

The scene at AFRAM 2023 on Saturday, tweeted by Mayor Brandon Scott. (@MayorBMScott)

ABOVE: The scene at AFRAM 2023 on Saturday tweeted by Mayor Brandon Scott. BELOW: Lots of dads made Jazz Fest part of their Father’s Day. (@MayorBMScott, Fern Shen)

Lots of dads made Jazz Fest part of their Father's Day. (Fern Shen)

The Charm

Another musical tradition with city roots, the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition, which used to be held at Artscape, was picked up by the BJA and included as the finale of Jazz Fest this year.

Five singers competed, backed up by trumpeter Clarence Ward III and his Session Band.

Iva Jean Ambush spoke with The Brew after her evocative performance of Holiday’s “Don’t Explain,” which earned her the First Place honors and a check for $500.

“It’s my third time entering, and my first time winning,” Ambush enthused. “I guess the third time’s the charm.”

Clarence Ward III and his Session Band play back-up for the annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. (Fern Shen)

ABOVE: Clarence Ward III and his Session Band play back-up for the annual Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. BELOW: This year’s winner was Iva Jean Ambush. (Fern Shen)

Clarence Ward III and Iva Jean Ambush, whose performance won the Billie Holiday Vocal Competition. (Fern Shen)

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