Fairs & Festivals

Manatee Jazz Fest features Jazz Juvenocracy

BRADENTON — Duke Ellington would be proud.

When the second annual Manatee Jazz Fest kicks off Friday, the 10-day, 18-concert celebration will feature a variety of jazz — including Sarasota’s Jazz Juvenocracy.

The youthful group, comprised entirely of teenagers ages 13-18, will present “A Night at the Cotton Club — A Tribute to Duke Ellington,” 7 p.m. Sunday at the Manatee Players.

Prepare for a festival filled with music for jazz lovers by jazz lovers.

“Jazz has so much going on,” said Bit Risner, the youngest member of Jazz Juvenocracy. “There are many different kinds of jazz. Improvising is really cool.”

To create an evening that’s as authentic as a moment out of the roaring 1920s, Risner’s six-member band will play the very music that master jazz musician Ellington performed at New York City’s Cotton Club.

There will even be dancers dressed as flappers from COBO Dance, a local contemporary dance troupe. And band members will take on the personas of Ellington’s band mates, coached for authenticity by John Lamb, a former member of Ellington’s band.

Why go all out to celebrate jazz?

“It’s one of our culture’s art forms that we can really claim,” said Amara Cocilovo, Manatee Jazz Fest organizer. “So many art forms come from different influences, but jazz is pure American.”

Pure American, indeed. So American it’s infectious.

In fact, Jazz Juvenocracy plans to share their jazzy talents with the world during its first European tour this summer. The band has been invited to play at top jazz festivals in France, Switzerland and Italy, which is pretty impressive considering the band began playing in front of Sarasota’s Whole Foods every Saturday morning about three years ago.

“People thought it was cool that kids were playing,” said 15-year-old bass player Brent Laymen, a founding member.

Bit, another founding member, was 10 at the time. She fell in love with jazz when her mom, Lisa, a former opera singer, encouraged her to take up music.

First it was the cello, which Bit, now 13, hated. So she tried the trumpet next.

“I thought the trumpet would be cool,” said the young musician, who also plays the flugelhorn. “It’s loud and in your face.”

She, Brent and a few other friends became so enthralled with jazz music that they convinced Whole Foods to let them play outside the store.

That made Greg Nielsen, a jazz trombonist and Booker Middle School instrumental teacher, take notice. He now serves as the group’s coach. After he came on board, the group landed a weekly gig at the Irish Rover in Sarasota. Jazz Juvenocracy performs there every Saturday night.

It was at the Irish Rover that the band’s 1920s, ’30s and modern jazz sound impressed former Moody Blues band member Patrick Moraz. He encouraged them to make a demo tape and send it to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. The band received an instant invite. With nothing to lose, the band decided to send a demo tape to The Jazz a Vienne Festival in France and the Tuscany and Umbria jazz festivals in Italy. That’s how the European tour came to be.

“They all want to be professional jazz musicians,” said Lisa Risner. “They want to do it all.”

The band also includes Austin Parker Gill on guitar; Alex Hernandez on tenor and soprano sax; Rodney Rocques on drums and Tommy Silverman on alto sax, clarinet and flute.

The teens — who have performed at area jazz festivals and have been on TV — are amazed about the European tour where they will present more of their fusion jazz side. But first they have to raise enough money to go. Lisa Risner said they are just $10,000 away from their $30,000 goal.

Besides the event at the Manatee Players, the band’s next fundraiser, The Underdog Jazz Festival, will be 1-8 p.m. April 24 at Pal Sailor Circus. Dozens of jazz artists will perform during the benefit.

But before that happens, there’s the Manatee Jazz Festival to enjoy. Other concerts during the local festival include Jazzology Trio, Scott Blum Trio, Jennifer Leigh and the New Digs, a Get Down Downtown tribute to Jazz and more.

“Everyone was so happy with it last year,” Cocilovo said of the event. “They were eager to do it again.”

January Holmes, features writer, can be reached at 745-7057. Follow her on Twitter at @accentbradenton.