By Kevin Coughlin
How hot was it on the Morristown Green on Saturday?
The always-dapper Bucky Pizzarelli actually removed his jacket and tie to perform at the fifth annual Morristown Jazz & Blues Festival.
Despite mercury readings that exceeded his age, the 89-year-old guitar great, who has played with everyone from Sinatra to McCartney, remained the epitome of cool.
Nor did the heat faze hordes of music fans who flocked to the historic Green for 10 hours of free music from five acts.
Swingadelic got things off to a bouncy start at noon. Pizzarelli’s “Guitar Summit” followed with fellow ax-men Ed Laub, Frank Vignola and Vinny Raniolo. Next came the scorching Bria Skonberg Band, Roomful of Blues, and headliner Charlie Musselwhite and his band.
“Each year it has gotten better,” said William Daley of Morris Plains, attending his third Morristown Jazz & Blues Fest.
Mark and Patty Von Till of Green Brook saw a sign on Harter Road advertising the Festival. The event proved much larger than they expected, Mark said, and the entertainment and timing were wonderful.
“Today has been a nice diversion for us,” he said, explaining that a fire damaged the couple’s home last month and they are living in an apartment for now.Arguably, the best seats in the (outdoor) house belonged to Sarah Greulich of Morristown and Cat Ponnwitz of Montville, who shared a hammock strung between two trees on the South Park Place side of the Green.
Someone suggested this might have commercial possibilities; the friends took it under advisement.
If the Green had a roof, the town might be shopping for a new one after Bria Skonberg’s scorching set. Trading trumpet lines and vocals that ranged from playful to powerful, the Canadian musician won a hearty standing ovation during the hottest part of the afternoon.
“It was getting pretty toasty… but it was like basking in all this music, and the hot jazz-ness of it, and I didn’t mind it all,” said Skonberg.
“It was an awesome experience on that big stage. The audience was receptive and we had a great time. I’m good-tired right now!”
Skonberg made her East Coast debut just down the road, at the Bickford Theatre seven years ago. She returns there in November; catch her if you can.
Evan Arntzen, Skonberg’s sax player, crooned I’ve Got You Under My Skin as an homage to Frank Sinatra. Tributes to Sinatra, Les Paul, and Muddy Waters– who all would have turned 100 this year–were sprinkled across the acts on Saturday.
“I played the White House with him,” Pizzarelli said of Sinatra. And he was pals with Paul, the hit songwriter and inventor of the famed Les Paul guitar and advanced recording gear. “He was a genius,” said Pizzarelli.
The festival was underwritten by sponsors who together ponied up about $70,000, according to Mayor Tim Dougherty, who proposed the venture in 2010 and assembled a committee to make it happen.
“I’m kind of speechless,” Dougherty said after blues harpist Charlie Musselwhite closed the show with Christo Redemptor, the signature instrumental piece from his first album in 1967.
“Every act was superb,” said the Mayor, looking exhausted but pleased on a “silky summer night.”
He estimated that as many as 6,000 people visited the Green over the course of Saturday’s festival.
“This crowd was big,” he said. “People stayed for the whole show, the downtown did well, commerce did well. Thank God again for the weather gods.”
All five summer fests have enjoyed dry conditions.
And all have been produced by the husband-and-wife team of Don Jay Smith and Linda Smith. Don said their goal for next year is to raise the event’s national profile.
They may have difficulty topping Saturday’s concert, however.
“This was a home run,” Don Jay Smith said.
Marie Pfeifer contributed to this report.
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