The Long Beach Jazz Festival returns to Rainbow Lagoon Park for a three-day celebration of contemporary, classic and Latin jazz, topped with healthy helpings of urban soul and R&B.
The lineup of musicians in the 26th annual festival that begins Friday reflect the theme "As the Beat Goes On" with R&B icons Gladys Knight and The O'Jays, legendary jazz bassist Stanley Clarke, Latin jazz star Poncho Sanchez and neo-soul vocalist Eric Benet. The popular acts are among 15 featured artists this year.
"We started the festival (in 1988) to bring new listeners to jazz," said festival founder Al Williams, a longtime jazz musician and entrepreneur. "If we don't, the art form will become like symphonic music. It will have its followers, but it will not be as popular."
Before launching Rainbow Promotions, which produces the festival, Williams, a jazz drummer, owned Long Beach's Jazz Safari restaurant/ night club adjacent to the Queen Mary for eight years, and Birdland West in downtown Long Beach. He mixes up many musical styles to draw music lovers to the Shoreline Drive venue.
"Al has an unusually diverse group of musicians. He is acutely aware of what the audience wants and then puts in a surprise," said Stanley Clarke, who co-founded the seminal jazz fusion group, Return to Forever, with Chick Corea.
Both Clarke and Benet are slated to perform Sunday with Knight, who closes the festival. Clarke, a four-time Grammy Award winner, attained "living legend" status during his 40-year career as a bass guitar virtuoso. He made jazz history by becoming the first bassist to move from playing his acoustic, double bass at the back of the jazz band to playing front and center to headline tours in the United States, Europe and Asia. Clarke also was the first bassist to double on both acoustic and electric bass.
In addition to maintaining a busy recording and touring schedule, Clarke is an accomplished film and television composer with more than 65 projects to his credit, including "Boyz N The Hood."
Benet, a neo-soul crooner and songwriter, has six albums to his credit, including his latest album, "The One." The album, released in June, is the first album to be released on Benet's newly-formed record label, Jordan House Records. His first hit single off the album is "Real Love."
"Eric's voice is not your typical R&B voice," Clarke said. "He could be a good jazz singer and do an album of standards. He has an unusual sound and that's good."
Benet was nominated for a 2012 Grammy Award for his single "Sometimes I Cry." As a Grammy nominee, he recently recorded a cover of "Always on My Mind" for Grammys Re-Imagined.
"I was attracted to the beauty and simplicity of the melody and lyrics," Benet said during a telephone interview. "I knew if I did that song, I could add something different to it."
Benet took out the bluegrass tone from Willie Nelson's signature song and infused it with his own soulful, vocal purity, accompanying himself on keyboards.
Benetccc plans to release "Runnin,'" the fourth single off "The One" this month. He said he is also looking forward to getting into the studio with the artists he has signed to Jordan House Records.
"I want to help other artists reach their creative goals and have control over their careers," Benet said.
The festival opens at 7 p.m. Friday with soul and harmony masters, The Whispers, R&B and gospel singer Howard Hewett and saxophonist Everette Harp. The festival continues Saturday with singer-songwriter Elle Varner, urban and jazz group DW3, smooth jazz saxophonist Euge Groove, vocalist Phil Perry and saxophonist Kim Waters; and closing with the O'Jays . The festival ends Sunday with Clarke, Benet and Knight as well as other musicians performing from Jeanette Harris to Al Williams Jazz Society and Poncho Sanchez.
Vicki Smith Paluch is a Pasadena-area based freelance writer.
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