April Berks Jazz Festival celebrates 25th Year in Reading

Headlined this year by Winton Marsalis, this popular Reading, Pa. festival is pushing back its start date to April 10 to accommodate a late Easter Sunday.

Wynton Marsalis.
Jazz great Wynton Marsalis returns to Reading for this year's Berks Jazz Festival in April. (Photo via Wikipedia)

READING, Pa., March 22, 2015 – A little more than two weeks from now, the Berks Jazz Festival will host some of the legends of jazz at its annual two-weekend-long festival here. The 2015 edition will mark the 25th anniversary of this unique event that’s just a little over a two-hour drive from Washington, D.C.

Berks Jazz Fest logo.
Berks Jazz Fest logo.

Since its inception in 1991, the festival has gradually built considerable momentum, growing into what is considered a Spring Rite of Passage for the jazz festival circuit.

Hosted by the Berks Arts Council and supported by major local sponsors such as Boscov’s Department store and host media partner, the Reading Eagle, this year’s edition of the festival has pushed back its start date to April 10, out of respect for an unusually late Easter Sunday 2015.

John Ernesto, general manager of the Berks Jazz Fest, will be celebrating his 21st year as the head honcho next month and is proud of the festival’s growth and diversity both in music genres and venues over the years. He is also excited to welcome back New Orleans trumpet legend Wynton Marsalis as this year’s festival headliner. Marsalis performed at the inaugural festival back in 1991, along with other headliners such as Pancho Sanchez and Dianne Schuur.

Vocalist Diane Reeves, who first performed in the second annual festival in 1992, is also returning as a feature artist on April 12. She will appear at the Miller Center for the Arts, located on the campus of this columnist’s alma mater, Reading High School, a.k.a. “the Castle on the Hill.”

With a record number of performances slated for this year event, it’s tough to preview them all in detail. For that reason, just to whet your appetite, we’ll give our D.C.-area readers a taste of the opening weekend performances, which start with a kickoff performance by Marsalis, jazz and classical trumpet great. He’ll be performing with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra at the Santander Performing Arts Center in downtown Reading.

Boney James.
Boney James in action, live on stage. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Following that early evening show, smooth jazz legend and crowd favorite Boney James cranks up the festival’s Opening Night Party at 10 p.m. at the Crowne Plaza Ballroom. This locale also serves as the host hotel for the festival and also will host Gerald Veasley’s “Sweet Deserts Jazz Tent” and traditional Midnight Jam sessions that launch around the midnight hour. Typically, the festival’s late night players and performers will migrate here after their sets to stylishly close out the evening’s festivities with a little help from their musical friends.

On April 11, Washington D.C.’s leading radio powerhouse and Howard University-based radio station WHUR (96.3 FM) will feature WHUR Day. The station’s festival-oriented programming will kick off with an early evening “The Soul of Jazz” session, with Jeffrey Osborne, Nagee, Brian Simpson, Gerald Veasley, Nick Collione and Baltimore’s majestic Maysa on tap at the Santander.

Later in the evening Maysa is surely going to join her international partners in crime along with hundreds of “Cog Heads” at the Crowne Plaza. Everyone will be there to hear INCOGNITO close out the evening with their unique version of funk, soul and fusion jazz.

Paul "Bluey" Maunck and Maysa.
INCOGNITO founder Paul “Bluey” Maunck and Maysa performing live. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Just a personal note from personally covering this festival for the last decade: Band founder and leader Jean-Paul “Bluey” Maunck and his fabulous collection of international vocalists and musicians have been known to hang out for hours in the Crowne Plaza lobby, meeting, greeting and sharing selfies with their rabid Cog Head followers. Consider joining them.

On April 12, opening weekend wraps up with a 10 a. m. jazz brunch featuring the Urban Jazz Coalition & Friends at the Crowne Plaza; a 1:30 p. m. tribute to the Original Allman Brothers, an event certain to attract the hard core rock enthusiast; and a “Smooth Jazz Cruise Night” performance by the energetic Brian Culbertson, along with a late-night performance by jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves.

Maysa in performance.
Maysa in performance. (Credit: Malcolm Lewis Barnes)

Advice for first-time visitors: Don’t be intimidated by the festival’s performance-packed schedule. Unlike D.C., my hometown of Reading is a traffic-jam-free zone. Once you get used to the convenient freeways around town connecting the in-town venues with the suburban host hotel—as well as the restaurant- and outlet shopping-rich territory clustered near the Crowne Plaza—just about everything you’ll want or need is a quick 15- to 20-minute ride from city to suburban venues.

The festival runs for 10 days over two weekends with a record 50 ticketed events this year. In fact, this year’s events will expand for the very first time to venues outside of Berks County out to nearby Pottsville, and will also include over 125 related and free community, historical and educational events.

For more information on the entire 2015 festival schedule, along with directions for getting there, seating charts and options for purchasing tickets, visit BerksJazzFest.com. Tickets can also be purchased by calling Ticketmaster at 800-745-3000.

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