Your Source For The Arts In Atlanta

Jazz pianist Johnny O’Neal was an Atlanta mainstay in the 1990s.

Pianist Cyrus Chestnut and Atlanta native Kathleen Bertrand will be among the performers in Piedmont Park on Memorial Day weekend as part of the 35th annual Atlanta Jazz Festival. Pianist and former Atlanta resident Johnny O’Neal will also perform at a special after-hours jam session at the Loews Hotel.

The full lineup for the three-day festival won’t be announced until April, said Camille Russell-Love, director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs. In fact, Russell-Love is still in the midst of securing artist commitments and developing a theme for the event. She wants to pay tribute to past performers — everyone from Miles Davis and Lionel Hampton to a young Wynton Marsalis has played the festival — while presenting it as a strong, sustainable event.

“We would love to have tributes to previous jazz artists who have played the festival over the last 34 years and legends who are no longer with us,” she said during a telephone interview. “We’re very lucky that a lot of jazz artists who have played the festival are in Atlanta. We’re right now working on finalizing a lineup.”

Last year the festival featured an international stage, and Russell-Love is working with the Japanese and Israeli Consulates to bring in foreign jazz. One of the most exciting things, she said, is the month-long “31 Days of Jazz,” a festival tradition that promotes jazz events around the metro area. Last year, concerts at area restaurants, the High Museum of Art and even the airport were promoted by the city during festival time.

“We really want to make sure people know that they can hear jazz all year round,” she said. “And we highlight where those places are during the month of May.”

Chestnut, a graduate of the Berklee School of Music, has performed with such legends as Freddie Hubbard, Terence Blanchard, Branford Marsalis and Betty Carter. He leads his own trio and has had a successful recording career.

Atlanta native Kathleen Bertrand.

Bertrand, a graduate of Spelman College, was the featured vocalist for Roy Ayers before she branched into a solo career. Known for her three-octave vocal range, she has performed three times at the vaunted Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

O’Neal’s inclusion in the festival is a homecoming of sorts. The pianist now lives in New York, but he lived and gigged in Atlanta during the early 1990s and even helped launch the city’s most prominent jazz club, Churchill Grounds. He first performed at the festival in the early 1980s as part of Milt Jackson’s group and has fond memories of a thriving jazz scene in Atlanta.

“I tell you, a lot of people say that they think when I came down to Atlanta, that I started a whole new jazz scene in the ’90s,” O’Neal said recently. “I revolutionized Atlanta back in those days.”

Those bonds with the city’s jazz community are still strong. O’Neal recently entered the studio with local saxophonists Mace Hibbard, Sam Skelton, Brian Hogans and Gary Harris to record tracks for “Atlanta Sax All-Stars,” released on Hot Shoe Records.

Russell-Love booked O’Neal after she saw him perform in New York City at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola. It was there that she got the idea that he would work well in the late-night sessions. “We want to create the same ambiance” she explained. “I think he would be much better in that environment than in Piedmont Park.”

For his part, O’Neal jumped at the opportunity to swing back down to Atlanta. “I always have held Atlanta in a high regard when it came to the arts,” he said. “Atlanta was good to me, and I’m very favorable toward Atlanta.”

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