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Profile: David Manson, St. Petersburg Jazz Festival founder and director

Bill DeYoung

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Trombonist, composer, bandleader and educator David Manson has been fine-tuning the St. Petersburg Jazz Festival for a more than a dozen years. "I’m really, really picky about what I want, and if people don’t like that, fine," he laughs. "Create your own jazz festival." Photo by Bill DeYoung.

For 25 years, David Manson has been virtually synonymous with jazz in St. Petersburg. A trombonist, composer and bandleader, the Dunedin native joined the music faculty at St. Petersburg College in 1995 and quickly resurrected the school’s all-but-brain-dead jazz program.

SPC’s world-renowned music technology lab, the MIRA (Music Industry Recording Arts) program, developed slowly but steadily, and now has more than 250 majors learning the art of music and business from Manson – one of its founders – and other faculty who’ve worked in the industry.

Manson, who currently teaches composition, world music, jazz studies and low brass (trombone, tuba and euphonium), attended Cincinnati Conservatory on a scholarship, and taught for six years at Indiana State University. He played with numerous orchestras, toured with the likes of George Burns, Danny Thomas and Burt Bacharach, and was a longtime member of the Frank Zappa tribute group Bogus Pomp.

He was awarded Distinguished Faculty status at SPC in 2015.

The 12th annual St. Petersburg Jazz Festival takes place over five days this week (Feb. 26-March 1) at the Palladium Theater. Manson produces the event through EMIT, the nonprofit organization he began his first year teaching fulltime. For many years, EMIT was itself a jazz group, dedicated to avant and experimental jazz, new music and, ultimately, traditional and Latin jazz. Since its inception, EMIT has sponsored more than 450 concerts and workshops dedicated to “creative” music-making.

None of the St. Petersburg Jazz Festival artists are “names” – Manson has a theory about that. As a matter of fact, he has several theories.

And they all come down to one thing: It’s about the music. Period, end of sentence.

“There’s this fixation on outside artists – the new kid on the block,” he says. “Even in the arts world here, it’s always about somebody new that just popped into town. And at the large performing arts centers, it’s always about outside artists.

“With EMIT, we just decided to shift – very gradually – to supporting local artists more. Even though our budget last year was just a little over $50,000, more than half of that went to local artists. We pay people – that’s a really strong part of the EMIT concept. We don’t ask people to do freebies, ever.”

The Helios Jazz Orchestra, one of Manson’s current groups, includes several longtime professional players who’ve settled in the area; although the 18-member big band is the ensemble-in-residence at SPC, some of the musicians aren’t young student up-and-comers. They’re seasoned pros, mostly retired from the biz, earning college credits.

Jazz is a niche market, he believes. You got your purists and you got your Kenny G aficionados, and you can’t please everybody. More than five shows in five days – of anything – would risk over-saturating the local market; there are only so many serious fans in any community.

He insists on keeping things relatively intimate (four of the five concerts take place in the Side Door, the Palladium’s cabaret-style ground-level space, while the fifth is happening upstairs in the 800-seat auditorium).

“If it’s an outdoor event, a stadium-like concert, then it’s a social event and you’ll get thousands of people,” Manson says. “I would love to do outdoors concerts, but it’s a serious gamble in Florida.

“The Clearwater Jazz Holiday got big, it went outdoors. We tried a couple of outdoor concerts – they got rained out. So I thought, ‘Let’s stick with an indoor venue.’ And they have great sound people at the Palladium.”

The St. Petersburg Jazz Festival is partially funded by grants from Florida’s Division of Cultural Affairs, by the City of St. Petersburg, and through sponsorships and ticket sales.

“I’m willing to take about a 20 percent loss so that our series is adventurous, and we’re not just pandering,” Manson states. “We typically break even, or do a little better than the cost of the event.”

Tickets (and additional info) available here.

The performers

Wednesday, Feb. 26 at 7:30 p.m., Side Door. O Som Do Jazz is Manson’s own Brazilian jazz group, playing samba, bossa nova, balanco and more. The group’s vocalist is Manson’s Rio-born wife Andrea Moraes Manson, and La Lucha’s Alejandro Arenas (bass) and Mark Feinman (drums) comprise the rhythm section. And it only gets better from there: Pianist Adolfo Medonca, flautist Jose Valentino Ruiz and percussionist Rafael Pereira are on board, too.

Thursday, Feb. 27 at 7:30 p.m., Side Door. The Conglomerate is an Orlando-based jazz-funk-R&B fusion ensemble comprised of session musicians, producers, songwriters and an educator. Funky and synth-heavy (three keyboard players!), the band id equal parts The Meters and Parliament-Funkadelic.

Thomas

Friday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Side Door. A double bill with Trinidadian steel pan virtuoso Leon Foster Thomas and his band, and acclaimed improvisational pianist Tal Cohen. Of the Miami-based Thomas, examiner.com ha this to say: “His gift is an ability to bring forth any style with abandon, and play his steel pan as if it belonged in jazz all along … there are times when Leon Foster Thomas plays his steel pan like Gary Burton on vibes.”

 

Cole

Saturday, Feb. 28 at 7:30 p.m., Hough Hall. Vocalist Alexis Cole, just back from a career-defining Japanese tour, has been compared to the likes of Anita O’Day and Sarah Vaughan. She’ll be out front of the 18-member Helios Jazz Orchestra. “Alexis Cole sings with a real voice,” says Manson. “I can’t stand mush-mouthed singers, or people with baby girl voices. I want somebody that can project and articulate. I can understand their lyrics. And she has it.”

Sunday, March 1st 7:30 p.m., Side Door. Florida-based trumpeter Jason Charos and his group play straight-ahead jazz, the old-school stuff, and this performance is dedicated to the music of trumpet legend Booker Little, who died in 1961 at the age of 23. Here’s a video of the ensemble performing a Little tune at the University of Miami’s Frost School of Music in 2019:

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1 Comment

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    Karen Kaufman White

    February 25, 2020at9:11 pm

    So close to my heart!

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