The 1998 launch of a classy, homegrown jazz festival in humble downtown Vancouver was a surprise to everyone. Even more surprising is how successful the festival proved across 20 years, as it attracted some real jazz royalty to town and packed growing crowds into Esther Short Park.
Then, health problems got in the way for festival organizer Michael Kissinger — and for the rest of humanity. In spring 2019, Kissinger suffered a stroke and decided to call off the annual August festival. He said he wanted to “rethink, retool and reboot” the event for 2020, which turned out to be when the COVID-19 pandemic hit the brakes on any and all cultural events.
Now, the Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival is ready for relaunch, with a theme that feels relevant as can be after two years of historic suffering and loss: “Rebirth of the Blues.”
“It feels like the factory got burned to the ground, and now we are rebuilding it,” Kissinger said.
Normally Kissinger starts planning for the summer festival the previous fall, he said, but this time it wasn’t possible until March of this year, when mask mandates and other virus restrictions were called off in Washington and Oregon.
Without much time, Kissinger’s first call was to the old friend who headlined his first Vancouver Wine & Jazz Festival: singer, pianist and two-time Grammy Award winner Diane Schuur, who agreed to be the 2022 festival headliner on Saturday night.
“She’s an icon in the jazz world, and she’s a part of Vancouver history too,” Kissinger said.
A Tacoma native, Schuur spent formative years from age 4 through 11 attending the Washington School for the Blind, which is where she started studying the piano.
Vancouver is also where she and her school friends used to roller skate, dance and jump around while playing the jazz records Schuur’s parents mailed her from Tacoma, she told The Columbian in 2017.
“We used to have these parties,” she recalled. “We had some great times.”
When Kissinger called Schuur to headline this weekend’s festival, he said, they both got emotional.
“It’s very meaningful to come full circle like this,” Kissinger said. “She was our headliner in 1998. I told her, ‘Diane, we’ve got to move on with our lives, we’ve got to have community, we’ve got to have joy, we’ve got to have music. And I can’t think of anyone I’d rather have than you.’ ”
Wine, food, art
The three-day festival will see a blend of local, regional and global acts taking the Esther Short Park stage while audiences relax in folding chairs and on picnic blankets. Local food vendors will be on hand, and you can purchase local and regional wines by the single-ounce sample or by the glass.
“Good wine and jazz music are a natural fit,” said festival director Maria Manzo. Northwest wines featured at the festival will include 14 Acres, Argyle, Eola Hills, Maryhill and others.
Twenty artists will sell works in many styles, including painting, pottery, metal sculpture, glass, jewelry, photography and more. This year’s festival art on T-shirts and posters is by Los Angeles artist Samuel Pace.
Friday night’s lineup is dominated by local and regional performers and that happy-to-be-sad sound of the blues. Fingerstyle guitarist Terry Robb, electric blues “boogie cat” Norman Sylvester and funky blues combo the Bottleneck Blues Band will be followed by headliner Sue Foley, a fiery blues guitarist and singer from Canada who won a Blues Foundation Award this year. Foley has released 15 albums, the latest of which is a Texas-flavored collection called “Pinky’s Blues,” named for Foley’s signature pink-paisley Fender Telecaster guitar.
Saturday’s lineup includes bassist Dan Schulte and his quartet, rock violinist Aaron Meyer, the Portland Cello Project, singer Diane Schuur and Grammy-winning modern fusion band the Yellowjackets.
Sunday’s lineup includes Vancouver’s own Ne Plus Ultra Jass Orchestra, an 11-piece band that revives the lush, richly harmonized “hot and sweet” dance music of the 1920s and early 1930s, an era when jazz was so young it didn’t even have a standardized spelling yet.
“I think we will add some great contrast to the other ensembles performing, while also demonstrating that Vancouver has some wonderful musicians living right here,” said Ne Plus Ultra conductor Sammuel Murry-Hawkins.
Later come Latin singer-guitarist Raul Midón and a powerfully original piano trio led by 26-year-old Connie Han. Closing the festival on Sunday night is legendary, Grammy-winning singer, percussionist and bandleader Poncho Sanchez.
“It’s been a scramble to put this all together — like a lot of things,” Kissinger said. “But we cannot wait any longer. We’ve got to live.”