Wine fest jazzes up downtown Vancouver

Annual event featuring great music, fruits of the vine endures, endears

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian Arts & Features Reporter



If You Go

 What: 20th annual Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival, featuring 15 acts and many local restaurants, wineries, artists and crafters.

 When: 4 to 10 p.m. Aug. 25; 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Aug. 26; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Aug. 27.

 Where: Esther Short Park, Eighth and Columbia streets, downtown Vancouver. Bring blankets and low lawn chairs only.

 Tickets: $60 for advance three-day pass; $25 at the gate for Friday, $35 for Saturday, $30 for Sunday (see website for discount advance-purchase prices).

 On the web: See full schedule on

Twenty years ago, there was nothing jazzy about downtown Vancouver. It was all blues.

“I was on the design committee for the new Esther Short Park before anything was happening downtown,” said Michael Kissinger. “I mean, nothing was happening. Nothing.”

Kissinger was eager to change that. The musician and music maven was mightily impressed when he played in the fabulous Spoleto music and arts festival — the Festival dei Due Mondi (Festival of the Two Worlds) — which is hosted by a little Italian town.

“It’s a beautiful cultural festival for all of Europe. I remember thinking, ‘It would be so cool to create something like this at home.’ The seed was planted.”

Growing that seed took Kissinger a few years of market research and planning, but city officials took almost no time to climb aboard. All were keen to launch something new and exciting to attract people to downtown and a jazzed-up Esther Short Park.

So even when the park renovation project got delayed, the first Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival went ahead anyway, in August 1998; faithful jazz lovers savored the novel experience of hearing superstar pianist Chick Corea in downtown Vancouver — playing in a gravel lot next to the park.

The following year, when the park still wasn’t ready, Kissinger scrounged up some used turf from the Women’s World Cup soccer tournament in Portland, which was happy to get rid of it. He said he hired some “park residents” to lay all that turf atop the gravel; before he knew it, he said, the fire chief called warning that the field might catch fire, and offered to water it down. A ladder truck showed up and hosed down the grass, which started to grow, Kissinger said.

After the festival, he said, he sold the turf to any and all takers. “Little bits and pieces of PGE Park grass are growing all over Clark County,” he said.

Since then, he added, the festival “has grown and grown and grown. We’ve had over 200 major acts, 600 visual artists and so much excellent wine.”

A favorite and meaningful memory, he said: Trumpeter Chuck Mangione’s father died just before the festival, and Mangione was sobbing backstage with Kissinger and his wife. Then he pulled himself together, played a stellar set — and then surprised everybody, his own band included, with a spontaneous performance of “Amazing Grace” in honor of his dad.

“That was so old-school,” Kissinger said. “It’s about the music but it’s about soul, too.”

Brit blues boss

Headlining this year’s busy lineup of jazz and blues stars is the Briton who’s more famous — perhaps unjustly — for the guitarists he’s hired than for his own music. That’s John Mayall, whose mid-1960s Bluesbreakers was an incubator for talents like Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page, Jack Bruce (of Cream) and Mick Taylor (of the Rolling Stones). Mayall may be overshadowed by those names, but he’s been astonishingly prolific across the decades, constantly putting out new recordings and collecting honors like membership in the Blues Hall of Fame and the nickname “Godfather of British Blues.”

There’s an emphasis on blues at this 20th annual Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival, with seven-time Blues Music Award winner Ruthie Foster headlining on Friday night, eight-time Blues Music Award winner the Shemekia Copeland Blues Band on Saturday afternoon, and Chicago guitar monster Ronnie Baker Brooks and band on Sunday afternoon.

Jazz of every stripe is part of the festivities too, with groups led by drummer Christopher Brown, guitarists Russell Malone and Dan Balmer, saxophonist Grace Kelly, and singers Jane Monheit and Sara Gazarek. The Rippingtons will make it smooth and the 56th U.S. Army Jazz Band, based at Fort Lewis, will make it patriotic.