Free jazz

The White Noise International Music Festival brings jazz—and rock and soul—to the masses

Harley White makes some noise.

Harley White makes some noise.

Photo By Larry Dalton

Listening to jazz is kind of like walking a dog. Both jazz musicians and dogs approach the world from a feeling-consciousness. Listening to a tenor-sax player surf over the chord changes in a song is not unlike watching a dog sniff around trees and bushes, and observing both of them can put you in touch with your own feeling-awareness. Or something like that.

It made perfect sense, anyway, in a conversation on a fine late-summer evening in Tom Bray’s Midtown backyard. Bray plays host to a jam session at his home on H Street on most Monday nights, where musicians play and people who love jazz hang out. And while a tenor player named Tim Taylor surfed the changes being laid down by a rhythm section in Bray’s front parlor, with Bray manning the mixing board from an adjacent room, local musician and teacher Harley White Jr. was out back, hanging out with his friend Clark Goodloe. Both of them were off that evening from a regular gig at the California State Fair, where they play bass and keyboards, respectively, in a show band.

“This whole scene grew out of a bass lesson,” White said, explaining that he and Bray—who’d been hosting intensive deep-catalog listening sessions for a few jazz-enthusiast pals for some time—began recording their sessions on a portable MP3 device, until the desire for greater fidelity necessitated a more sophisticated setup.

From there, the talk ranged from the primacy of swing orchestras in the 1930s and ’40s—specifically Duke Ellington’s—and how they helped integrate American culture, to James Brown’s hard-edged funk bands a couple of decades later: “Ellington was the first avant-garde musician,” Goodloe insisted.

“He and Stravinsky ran the 20th century,” White added.

But much of the chatter had to do with White’s grand ambitions: First, he would like his White Noise International Music Festival, which will occur on Saturday, September 9, to become an annual affair. And second, White would like the Count Basie Orchestra to play White Noise every year.

Basie, of course, died in 1984, but his band still performs. And for White, a musician and music educator, that band is an icon of an earlier time, before Proposition 13 ran a buzz saw through school band programs, a time when young ace jazz musicians grew like wildflowers across the landscape.

Affixed to Bray’s refrigerator door is a poster for White Noise. It depicts a black-and-white line drawing of a standup bass, done by local poet Jose Montoya, leaning against a vertical rectangle of the same shade of vermilion found on the classic label design used by Impulse! Records, home to John Coltrane and many other greats. The illustration is done in the style of David Stone Martin, who created many of the album covers for the Clef and Verve labels in the 1950s. It communicates an aesthetic that all but screams jazz.

The lineup for the three shows on Saturday, however, is more diverse than that. The free concert at Cesar Chavez Plaza, from 3 to 7 p.m., offers a bill that most closely fits the poster’s impression, with Japanese Hammond B-3 organist Atsuko Hashimoto playing in a classic ’60s organ-trio context, preceded by the Harley White Sr. Quintet. Opening the outdoor concert are the Marcus Shelby Trio and Pak Ten, White the younger’s band. The senior White, the festival organizer’s father, is also a bassist and a longtime music educator who has played with scores of jazz greats, including Earl “Fatha” Hines, John Handy, Pharoah Sanders and many more.

Later that evening, the festival moves to two separate venues. A 9 p.m. pop/rock bill will be at Old Ironsides, headlined by White’s Beatlesque band Seventy, with the Snobs, American Karma and singer Katie Jane slated to play. Across Midtown, a 9:30 p.m. funk/soul card will be at The Distillery, with Mama’s Pride, the Addict Merchants and Smoke. Both those shows have an $8 cover, and proceeds benefit the Roberts Family Development Center and the Erik Kleven Memorial Fund.

White wanted to do a women’s music lineup at the Fox & Goose, but that didn’t happen; perhaps it isn’t good to get too overly ambitious so early in your annual festival’s life cycle. “But every stage has a woman that’s prominent,” White pointed out.

By next year, the new True Love Coffeehouse—slated to open in new K Street digs this fall—will be on board to do a singer-songwriter stage, and White would like to feature doo-wop, world music, poetry and other genres, all a reflection of his eclectic tastes.

Last year marked the festival’s debut, with a show headlined by a reunion of White’s former groove band, Papa’s Culture. “My sister was like, ‘You’re turning 40, and that’s quite an accomplishment; you should really throw yourself a party, and if you don’t, I will,’” White recalled. So he did.

Having a birthday that falls on September 11 helped motivate him to do something cathartic to offset having his birthday hijacked by such a huge traumatic event, and if it could help raise money for charity and give the locals a taste of some sweet tunes, so much the better.

For the future, White figures the prospects for White Noise are bright. “Ultimately, it would be nice if this festival reaches across the grid from Raley Field to Harlow’s, popping with artists,” he said. And if can do for contemporary jazz, pop and other styles what the Jazz Jubilee has done for traditional jazz, so much the better.