Don't be surprised if you see an uptick in bowler hats, vests, fringed dresses and Mardi Gras beads around Eureka this weekend. It's jazz time once again as Redwood Coast Music Festivals presents the 22nd Annual Redwood Coast Jazz Festival starting Thursday, March 22, and running through Sunday. By the numbers, the RCJ Festival features 11 touring bands playing everything from traditional Dixieland jazz to swing to Cajun music, plus five student bands and two local bands (jazz fest stalwarts Hall Street Honkers and UKEsperience). That's 80 plus sets on five stages over the course of four days.
The festival began as a fundraiser for senior programs, and you'll see a fair share of silver-haired jazz fans, more at some venues than others. But the focus has always been on music for dancing. The various venues all include some sort of dance floor where you'll find baby boomers, 20-somethings, teens and seniors swinging their partners and showing off their moves. Saturday the Eureka Municipal Auditorium becomes dance central, with dance contests in the afternoon and the Redwood Coast Dance Show in the evening. Between sets by appropriately swinging bands, couples and teams will strut their stuff in dance demonstrations.
Among the swingers will be Debbie Weist, her dance partner Matt Lee and a small troupe from her dance classes. Last year her dance team did a West Coast swing number and a cha cha in the demonstration portions of the Saturday dance contest. She has even bigger plans this time out.
Weist teaches social dancing Tuesday evenings and Tuesdays and Thursdays at noon at the North Coast Dance Annex in Old Town. Last weekend she put her group through its moves at a rehearsal with North Coast Dance's Danny Furlong watching so he could offer some choreographic advice. She and Lee ended with an elaborate dance montage to the Gloria Gaynor disco hit "I Will Survive," as performed by several bands in different styles, including an Andrews Sisters-style swing version by The Puppini Sisters. Weist lumps the various forms she teaches together as "ballroom dancing."
"Ballroom dance is any sort of dance you might do if you went to a formal dance," she explained after catching her breath following the rehearsal. "That covers almost all of the social dances. They could play a foxtrot or West Coast swing. They could play a tango or a polka, maybe a waltz. They'll probably play something Latin: a cha cha, a rhumba or a bolero, maybe even salsa. The nightclub two-step has become more and more popular, particularly at weddings, because it was designed for pop-rock and country love songs. It's an easy dance to learn and very romantic."
She points out that the local jazz fest lineup includes much more than Dixieland and swing bands. Cajun outfits such as Gator Beat and fiddler Tom Rigney's band, Flambeau, mix many styles. "You can dance to their Latin stuff and they'll often play a waltz," she says, suggesting that dancers be ready for anything. "It can become very boring if you only know one style and you use up all your steps. If you know a few styles you can liven it up."
Another local dance teacher, Jesseca Waggoner, is skipping the contest this year. She's too busy organizing something called the Emerald Coast Lindy Exchange, a group effort to welcome swing dancers from out of the area by providing housing and other hospitality. They're expecting around 100 dedicated dancers will visit from up and down the West Coast, coming here just to dance at the Jazz Fest. Waggoner teaches a class Monday nights at Redwood Raks with open dancing following. She also serves on the board for the chapter of USA Dance, a national organization dedicated to the promotion of ballroom dancing via monthly dances at places like the local Moose Lodge, Grange halls and other venues.
"A lot of people are under the misconception that our area doesn't have a thriving dance population. We do," says Waggoner. "We have tango nights, we have salsa nights -- obviously we have swing nights. USA Dance is helping keep that alive."
She emphasizes the wide age range in those wanting to improve their dance skills. "We have dancers at my Monday night class anywhere from 12 to 80. It's all over the board -- not a young person thing or an old person thing." Like Weist, she advises learning many styles. "I think the biggest change in the last few years is that dancers don't just do one type of dance anymore. Of course anything you learn in one dance style can be used in other styles."
In addition to arranging crash pads for folks like the Hollywood Hotshots, a swing dance troupe from Los Angeles, she's organizing Emerald Exchange Last Nights, a pair of events for tireless dancers planned for Friday and Saturday at the Eureka Theater, after the rest of the fest is over. Friday, Glen and the Syncopators play two sets; Saturday it's DJ Augie, up from L.A. to play Lindy Hop dance music until 2 a.m. Admission is $10 on Friday and $8 on Saturday, free for those registered with the Exchange.
Ready? Dig out those dancing shoes and get set to swing.
Thursday's Redwood Coast Jazz Festival Kick-Off Dance runs from 7-10 p.m. at the Adorni Center. Admission is $8 with a festival pass or Taste of Main Street coupon; $10 without. "Dressy attire or period costumes suggested." The free RCJ Fest Opening Ceremony takes place Friday, March 23, at 12:30 p.m. at the Arkley Center for the Performing Arts with music by Blue Street Jazz Band and Stompy Jones. There's another free jazz concert Friday at the Arkley Center at 7:30 p.m. featuring The Redwood Coast All Star Jazz Band with members from various festival bands (sponsored by YP.com).
The Redwood Coast Jazz Festival Dance Contest runs noon-4 p.m. Saturday at the Eureka Municipal Auditorium with music by Stompy Jones, Glenn Crytzer and The Syncopators and Blue Street Jazz Band; admission $5. The Redwood Coast Dance Party at the Muni runs from 5:30-10:30 p.m. Saturday night with The Carl Sonny Leyland Trio, The Syncopators and Stompy Jones plus special guest clarinetist Bob Draga. (A $25 Saturday Prime Time ticket gets you into any venue from 5 p.m. to closing.) Other festival headliners include Tom Rigney and Flambeau, Gator Beat, The Midiri Brothers, Bob Schultz Frisco Jazz, Sister Swing and The Young Bucs.
Blue Street plays a free Sunday hymnal show at the Adorni Center with doors at 8:30 a.m. music from 9-10:15. Eureka First Methodist Church (520 Del Norte) hosts free hymnals featuring The Midiri Brothers and Bob Draga starting at 8:45 a.m.
Three-day, all-event tickets for the entire festival are $80 if you buy them before the end of Thursday, March 22. Then they go up to $85. For additional ticket options and information about the rest of the fest go to www.redwoodjazz.org or call (707) 445-3378.