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The Richmond Jazz Society celebrates 20 years with a gala night of dancing, food, games — and, oh yes — jazz, jazz, jazz.

For the Love of Jazz

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Don't let the casino gambling, horse racing, Cajun and Creole cuisine, and carnival masks fool you. Next week's "A Virginia Jazz Carnivale," is all about the music.

"We didn't want to just do a concert," says Richmond Jazz Society Executive Director B.J. Brown. "We have been working very hard to put this together, but then again, we'll never pass this way again."

The festive event, set for April 29, marks the society's first 20 years and will feature some of the area's best musicians performing in two ballrooms at Broad Street's Renaissance Ballroom.

"There are so many wonderful Virginia jazz artists, people who have performed and recorded with some of the great players, but who live here rather than New York," Brown says. "Like Rahsaan Rolland Kirk once said, 'No one is a hero in their own hometown.' They deserve recognition, and this event is a showcase for them."

The lineup is a who's who of local talent, covering a wide range of styles, including the island-flavored Afro-Cuban rhythms of Ban Caribe, a swing orchestra led by Glenn Wilson, and the soul/funk/jazz of F.R.E.N.S. Also on the program are a new straight-ahead quartet featuring Debo Dabney and Skip Gayles; the Eve Cornelius/Chip Crawford duo; vocalist Stephanie Nakasian with Hod O'Brien; "Saxsmo" Gates and pianist Bob Hallahan.

Rounding out the evening are cosmic fusion giant Lonnie Liston Smith, internationally renowned violinist Joe Kennedy Jr., and the musician whose newspaper ad in 1979 started the society, James "Plunky" Branch.

"He advertised for people who wanted to start a 'support group for jazz,'" Brown recalls. "Some great players had come to Richmond and few people came out to see them. He wanted to change that. Out first meeting was held in his house. Some of the people who came just wanted to socialize, sit around and listen to records. But enough of us wanted to get involved, and Plunky taught us how to set up a nonprofit organization to make it happen."

Between 1982 and 1984, the society ran its own club, hosting more than 150 performances by artists including David Newman, Hank Crawford, Hamiett Bluett and John Hicks. A gas leak from an adjacent gas station eventually shut the club down, but Brown says the concept still has a place in the minds of many local jazz fans who wonder when the society might open another club.

If the RJS home base was gone, the mission was undimmed. Working with organizations including The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, and participating in events such as June Jubilee, the society has sponsored most of the areas' highest-profile jazz events, including concerts by Miles Davis, Jimmy Smith, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and a long list of others.

The society also sponsors a guest educator series. "Well, if we called them lectures people wouldn't come," Brown says. As part of that program, cutting-edge clarinetist Don Byron brought his klezmer music (which he termed "Jewish Hip-Hop") to local universities and performed a memorable free concert at Congregation Or Atid.

As part of the society's outreach it also brings musicians to schools, nursing homes, children's museums and festivals. A program last summer at Woodville Elementary School combined jazz with the Standards of Learning and taught history with dance and math with rhythm. "The kids made up their own blues songs," Brown adds, " — about the tests." The society even scored a visit from premiere performer/educator Wynton Marsalis to an elementary school in 1997.

Proceeds from "A Virginia Jazz Carnivale" will support these educational activities as well as the RJS Web site at www.vajazz.org, which has become a key resource for information about local jazz musicians and events.

"Jazz is so many things to so many people," Brown reflects. "The more you hear it, the easier it is to understand and enjoy. Some people will listen carefully and others will just have fun. We want everyone to come and enjoy

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