The last Blues and Jazz Festival?
SALISBURY — For about the 15th time, Eleanor Qadirah says this is her last Rowan Blues and Jazz Festival.
But this time she’s serious.
“We don’t have a permanent place, and it’s getting more and more challenging to set up,” Qadirah says.
She remembers the most recent festival, the 14th, when the portable toilets never showed up, requiring Mayor Paul Woodson to make some telephone calls on her behalf the Saturday of the festival, which offers beer, by the way.
“I said, ‘It’s getting to be an emergency situation here, Paul,’ ” Qadirah recalls, chuckling.
The calls Woodson made for a city rescue worked. The arrival of portable toilets received a standing ovation, and City Council later recognized the police officer who pulled strings to get them there.
“Every year has been very interesting,” Qadirah says, sitting in her living room, surrounded by scrapbooks, festival posters, clippings and CDs of past performers.
“I never know what the surprise of the year will be.”
The festival has come a long way from its first — a fish-fry jam in 1999.
Qadirah belonged to the United Arts Council back then, “and I kept saying, ‘When are we going to have jazz and blues and a festival?’ ” As a member of a council outreach committee, anytime she was asked for a report, Qadirah began by asking, “Jazz, anyone?”
“I wanted true blues and jazz,” Qadirah says, “because we have everything else. I wanted to balance out the music scene here.”
Things finally came together through Qadirah, the Arts Council, several business sponsors and local musicians. Qadirah credits people such as Arts Council director Linda Kesler, Preston Sale, Ken Weaver, Cathy Cain, Kathy Carlton, Debbie Brinegar, Bob Paolino, Phyllis Partee, Nancy Gaines, Ken Carroll and Hump Stout for their help in the early years.
Performers played on a stage converted from a single-wide mobile home. Tablecloths were wrapped around the stage to cover the mobile home’s wheels.
Organizers created the first festival banner out of a shower curtain and black adhesive letters.
That first fish fry associated with the jam offered both filet and fish with the bone.
“White people wanted to know how you eat a fish sandwich with the bone,” Qadirah recalls. “It was a teachable moment.”
The venue itself was the grassy knoll and parking lot next to the former GX Fitness Center, where the festival lived for the first six years.
“It took a few years before some people realized we were introducing blues and jazz to downtown Salisbury,” Qadirah says.
The first festival (or jam) created such a good vibe that Qadirah founded with others the Rowan Blues and Jazz Society in October 1999.
The society became the nonprofit group organizing the annual festivals ever since.
Qadirah became the face of that group, which dedicated itself to preserving, promoting and presenting blues and jazz, “with an emphasis on performances by musicians from the Piedmont region of North Carolina.”
The first headlining act, Qadirah says, was the Ladies Auxiliary Blues Band of Greensboro. “They’ll be here this year,” she promises and says the band will be led by Shelia Klinefelter.
Through the years, Qadirah made sure visiting musicians sometimes reached into schools with educational programs or provided some one-on-one instruction for young musicians.
Beginning with the seventh festival, the location moved to the parking lot at 200 W. Fisher St., across from the Rowan Public Library.
Qadirah began booking more widely known acts, besides a core group of regional performers. But overall expenses led to the festival’s having to charge admission — the first 11 were free.
“Every part of the festival has an expense,’ Qadirah says. “The in-kind services have really been essential to the project.”
Those in-kind services often donated were catering services, hotel rooms, light towers, signs, posters, raffle tickets, ice and recreational vehicles.
The daylong festival has always managed to keep its backyard feel.
Spectators bring their own lawn chairs and blankets. Meanwhile, Qadirah has tried to provide food vendors with both down-home and international flair.
The Blues and Jazz Festival was one of the first outdoor events in downtown Salisbury, if not the first, to have the courage to obtain the necessary permits to sell beer.
As a tribute to her late friend Jackie Torrence, Qadirah added a storytelling component at the library, bringing in some of the state’s best storytellers as a prelude to the blues and jazz.
Torrence, a nationally known storyteller who lived in Rowan County, actually told one of her stories at the first Blues and Jazz Jam in 1999.
Through it all, Qadirah often was uncompromising in her dedication to blues and jazz as an American art form. If she brought in a blues band, she says, it was going to be a blues band and not a rhythm and blues band.
“I’m not here trying to please everyone in one concert,” she adds.
Qadirah often came up with themes for each festival. In 2011, for example, her lineup highlighted the “Leading Ladies of Blues and Jazz,” featuring the likes of Beverly “Guitar” Watkins, Eden Brent, Penny Zamagni, Toni Spearman and Brenda Morie.
Qadirah says serving as the ramrod for each year’s festival has been therapeutic for her, and she wouldn’t trade “all the interesting people I have met and the stories I have heard.”
She also has enjoyed the metamorphosis that happened with each festival and the volunteers who have helped. The festival, one of the few true blues and jazz festivals in the state, is an affiliate of the Blues Foundation and is listed in the Smithsonian’s Jazz Society Directory, Qadirah notes.
In 2003, she recalls, the festival raffled off a 1996 model car, which was in good running condition. A man from Lincolnton won the car and traveled back to Salisbury the following Sunday morning to drive the vehicle home.
Qadirah also likes the small-town humor — it probably wasn’t as funny then — behind Mac Arnold and a Plate Full O’ Blues’ appearance a couple of years ago.
Coming from Greenville, S.C., the band’s bus conked out on a side street near the McDonald’s on East Innes Street. It was only a few blocks from the festival stage, so arrangements were made to get the band and equipment to the festival in time.
Meanwhile, the group placed a call to a towing service back in Greenville, but when the tow-truck driver arrived, he couldn’t find the bus. Salisbury Police had arranged for it to be towed away to Statesville.
For the final Blues and Jazz Festival Oct. 19, Qadirah is calling it “Thanks for the Memories,” and she has booked a lineup representing some of the most requested performers by fans from the past 14 years. (See the accompanying box.)
She also has gone back to free admission. Only the people buying reserved tickets for VIP seating and hospitality service will be charged.
Qadirah has plenty of fight left. She is in her 70s and has just started taking guitar lessons. “I want to play Wes Montgomery style,” she explains.
Qadirah also is staying in shape through yoga, and talking with her, you get the feeling she’s ready to enter a new phase of bringing blues and jazz to Salisbury.
If you asked her, she acknowledges, she could give you a list of the headliners for a 2014 Blues and Jazz Festival. But she has other things she wants to pursue beyond the complications of a yearly festival.
One might be a mobile blues and jazz unit that could take the music into the community, to places such as meal sites, senior centers, nursing homes, schools and parks.
“I’m not trying to be a martyr for jazz,” she says. “I would just like to see more young people involved.”
Meanwhile, she’s writing a grant aimed at bringing the Carolina Chocolate Drops here, probably to one of the local theaters. The Grammy Award-winning group is good in explaining the history behind its music and instruments, and a lot of that explanation would be lost with a festival setting.
To Qadirah, it would be another teachable moment.
Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263, or email@example.com.