The annual Christmas Jazz Concert & Jam Session is one of Savannah's oldest musical traditions.
The Coastal Jazz Association is presenting the 42nd annual event on Christmas Day at The Westin Savannah Harbor featuring some of Savannah's most talented jazz musicians.
Beginning in the 1950s, black jazz musicians in Savannah would gather in a single venue on Christmas Day and share a potluck with their families. The annual event would also feature a concert and, later in the night, a jam session with all the musicians.
In 1955 segregated Savannah, the black musicians approached prominent civil rights leader W.W. Law looking to establish their own union. At the time, West Broad Street was dotted with myriad clubs and bars where the local organized bands would play. American Federation of Musicians Local 704 was created for professional black musicians. After desegregation, AFM Local was joined with the all-white union, 447. Today, the AFM 445-704 is still in existence, serving southeast Georgia and coastal South Carolina.
The unionized band members turned the annual Christmas concert into a gathering of all the local professionals. Each year, after the scheduled performance, the unionized members would allow non-union musicians to jam with them as sort of an audition and competition. The annual Christmas jazz jam session became wildly popular, and to this day, professional jazz musicians travel to Savannah to take part in the open jam session.
"We know for sure of some people that will be coming, but we never know who else. Some people just hear about it and show up," CJA Hall of Fame trombonist Teddy Adams said. "We have people drive in from Florida or North Carolina because they know about the history of this event and that it's always a very, very good musical event.
"Sometimes, the surprises are enjoyed more than the regulars. You never know who's going to be there. One year, Fred Wesley, who was James Brown's trombone player, showed up with two or three guys out of North Carolina. We had no idea that he was coming."
The Christmas concert was discontinued for about a decade until Adams and the late Ben Tucker moved back to the city in the 1970s. Adams, a Savannah native and acclaimed trombonist, was a member of the AFM 704, which he joined while in high school. After his time in the armed forces, Adams return to Savannah and with Tucker (who founded the Coastal Jazz Association) began a revolution of jazz music in Savannah.
In 1976, the two renewed the annual Christmas Jazz Concert & Jam Session. In recent years, the concert has also acted as a reunion for local musicians who got their start in Savannah, but have since moved on to bigger cities.
"This year, I am putting a special six-piece group together," Adams said. "We're going to do some arranged music. That's the first half. Then the second half is war. It's all competition. Everybody is hugging and shaking hands because they haven't seen some guys since last Christmas.
"At the same time, it's a paradox: Hey, it's good to see you, but look out; I am going to be trying to throw you off the bandstand. It's a lot of fun. Not only is it a cutting session, but you have guys who live here in Savannah that don't play with each other that often. It's really a camaraderie kind of thing where fellow musicians get together and have a ball.
"Fortunately, the musicians that have left Savannah and gone to New York are doing very well," Adams continued. "I have at least six students that have studied with me and gotten their master's degrees and chosen New York to be home, and they are surviving in New York as musicians. If you can survive in New York as a musician, you can survive anywhere. Anywhere."
When Adams and Tucker initially started doing the annual concert again, the CJA was not officially involved. However, one year early on in its formation, the association gwas struggling financially. The annual Christmas concert provided the perfect opportunity for fundraising. Each year since, the concert has held some charitable aspect.
After the CJA began performing better financially, the founders wanted to shift funds from the event into scholarships and to support the local jazz community. At first, the money was donated to Savannah State University's radio station. After a few years, it was shifted into a fundraiser that provides means for the CJA's scholarship programs at Armstrong State University and Georgia Southern, as well as Savannah Arts Academy.
The CJA has had one of its most transitional years to date. For years, it has been an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization whose primary event is the free Savannah Jazz Festival each year. The organization has grown enough to allow for a paid position. They hired interim executive director Paula Fogarty this year and the results have been palpable.
"By having an executive director as a hired professional, it's the first time we've got someone always monitoring the mail," CJA president Howard Paul said. "Someone consistently paying invoices and reviewing contracts and riders and coordinating with venues. All of those things are difficult to do and you tend to drop a lot of balls when it's a number volunteers working in their silos. When you have one person responsible for it, it solidifies everything we're trying to do. It helps stabilize the organizational events.
"As a result, this year we were able to raise more money, hire more high-profile artists, establish new donor policies and process, increase the size of our jazz festival program, solicit new vendors for the festival, increase our membership, and better reward our bigger donors by providing more VIP services during the festival. None of it could have happened without having a competent, paid staff member."
Along with Adams and Paul, the Dec. 25 concert will feature Eric Jones, Robert Saunders, Kirk Lee, Calvin Barnes, Mitch Hennes and Gina Rene. The Westin will provide food for purchase and a cash bar. A silent auction will be held with artwork, spa packages and more available.
IF YOU GO
What: Christmas Jazz Concert & Jam Session
When: 5 p.m. Dec. 25
Where: The Westin Savannah Harbor, 1 Resort Drive.
Cost: $25 in advance; $30 at the door