Richmond Jazz Society heats up two stages with "A Night in Tunisia." 

All that Jazz

On Saturday, April 28, The Richmond Jazz Society will host "A Night in Tunisia," a benefit gala featuring performances by a number of Virginia's best musicians.

Last year's event, in celebration of the society's 25th anniversary, was supposed to be a one-shot deal. "We'll never pass this way again," RJS Executive Director B.J. Brown said at the time. But that event's overwhelming success made this year's event inevitable. With nonstop music on two stages on separate floors of the Renaissance Center, tables full of good food, and an enthusiastic and friendly audience, it was one of the best parties of the year.

True to the spirit of jazz, a music that values innovation over repetition, this year's gala won't be a mere repetition of last year's event. "It's going to be hard to top ourselves," Brown says. "But we are sure going to try."

The event takes its name from a bebop anthem, written by Dizzy Gillespie in 1942. The song was a breakthrough hit, with a melody line with exotic suggestions of Moorish North Africa over the first use of Afro-Cuban rhythms in a mainstream jazz composition. The song hs been covered thousands of times over the nearly 60 years since, and it makes a fitting cross-cultural theme for this year's gala.

Singer Rene Marie headlines the event as she returns to Richmond from a national tour supporting her MaxJazz album "How Can I Keep From Singing?" Since she first arrived in Richmond, the jazz society has encouraged Marie. And she has returned the support, becoming an active member of the organization's board, delivering educational programs, and even serving refreshments at the RJS beer truck at last year's Jumpin' In July, while her album was climbing the charts.

Marie's performance will reunite her with pianist Bob Hallahan, who was closely associated with her early days in Richmond. Hallahan, who is also the event's musical director, has played with a who's who of well-known jazz musicians and has long been one of the pillars of the local jazz scene.

One of the anticipated highlights of the evening is the performance by Hampton Roads saxophonist Vince Priester. "We are very lucky to get him." says RJS President Robert Payne. "He is currently touring with Gladys Knight, and is coming into town especially for our event."

The essential Afro-Cuban ingredient will be provided by premier Virginia Latin-jazz band Salsa Y Mas. "They're a 13- to 15-piece big band, with a fantastic horn section," Brown says. "From the moment they hit the first note you can't help but get up and dance. I've been practicing my rhumba and salsa so I can keep up."

Other Richmond notables playing the gala are saxophonist Skip Gailes and James "Saxsmo" Gates. "Skip is both a wonderfully expressive player and a vital member of the community," Brown says. "He's been teaching improvisation and master classes at VCU since 1979, as well as leading various jazz ensembles.

"And James Gates can play it all — he can go from mainstream to contemporary without missing a beat. He's an athletic player, with physical intensity and soulfulness, and he plays all genres with the same verve."

For those who prefer their jazz smooth and danceable, there is The Krewe, a group that has quickly become one of the areas' most popular contemporary bands.

This year's event has been touched by sadness with the passing of one of the jazz society founders and historian, James Bracey Jr. "He was determined to come and dance," Brown says. "We'll make sure he is recognized."

Proceeds from the gala will benefit the continuing work of the RJS. In addition to bringing in just about every major jazz event for the last two-plus decades, the society brings musical events to schools, nursing homes and festivals — anywhere there is a need and open

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