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Finding a jazzy cultural rhythm in Savannah, Georgia
He calls his stand-up bass “Bertha,” and his stories, like his songs, flow and ramble like jazz. Ben Tucker has been part of the Savannah music scene for decades. The thing about playing jazz, he says, is that musicians creatively build on top of one another; it all comes together spontaneously.
Some 100 miles south of Charleston, Savannah seems built on such layers. And parties. To celebrate his 80th birthday, Mr. Tucker’s musician friends gathered with him onstage for three sets during this year’s Savannah Music Festival. Paula Deen showed up to deliver a birthday cake from her nearby restaurant, The Lady & Sons. I’d caught that show, sitting at one of the candlelit tables in the cozy, sold-out room in the Charles H. Morris Center. While Tucker strummed and smiled, Wycliffe Gordon played smooth and saucy trombone.
It was just one highlight during a couple of days and nights in the historic squares and parks, cafés and theaters of Savannah, where I’d parked the car and gotten around mostly by bicycle. The next night at a packed house in the Lucas Theatre on Abercorn Street, mop-topped teenagers played brass and drums and piano in tight performances of ragtime. Then some broke out for solos of looser blues numbers. It was the finals of the festival’s Swing Central Jazz Competition, with a dozen high school bands from across the country. One of the young men gave a long saxophone solo, walking from one end of the stage to the other while he played, confident and showy as a peacock. “The kids always blow everyone away,” says Ryan McMaken, a festival spokesman (who also happens to be a fiddle player).
The 2011 Savannah Music Festival will be held from March 24 to April 9 and includes more jazz along with banjo playing by Béla Fleck, bluegrass and folk from Punch Brothers, and Afro-Cuban performances by Los Muñequitos de Matanza. Like Charleston during Spoleto, there’s an extra energy and pulse to Savannah during the festival. But the city can be lively and interesting most any season.
Just after pulling into town on another recent visit, we found sultry singer Maggie Evans and Silver Lining playing a free concert in Johnson Square—she in a deep mauve miniskirt singing bossa nova numbers for tourists in T-shirts and office workers on lunch break. It was a good day to grab one of the “French Brown Bag” lunches from Papillote on West Broughton. The small French take-out opened last year and packs boxes with baguette sandwiches and salads, along with macaroons or other desserts.
That night, I’d find the Parisian influence again at Circa 1875, a popular gastropub on Whitaker Street that had just finished a complete renovation of the late-19th-century space next door. The menu includes simple, elegant plates of pâté and mussels with fennel and Pernod and other savories, as well as buttery pastry desserts. (Our server, who was French, let us know that the hostess had made that day’s fruit pies. And, oh, that apple—excellent.)
Another special find is the Crystal Beer Parlor, with a small sign outside and a long bar and dining room inside. On a corner in a residential neighborhood on West Jones Street, this place keeps the beer flowing, including classics like Schlitz, Stroh’s, Genessee Cream Ale, and Dixie. One of the owners, Phillip Nichols, told me he remembered coming to the tavern with his father when he was a child and that he and his brother, John, were fulfilling a dream when they reopened the circa-1933 Crystal Beer Parlor last fall. They kept many of the old upholstered booths, the menu board, and other memorabilia on the walls and ramped up the kitchen offerings with burgers, seafood, and Greek recipes from their mother. The chicken, sausage, and okra gumbo with a Greek salad was just right, and it came with a hot slab of cornbread.
Back at the nearly new AVIA hotel (opened in 2009) on the just-restored Ellis Square, a bride still in her white gown was checking in at the front desk while her groom and a valet balanced luggage on a cart. House dance music pumped through the lobby and the adjoining restaurant, where a long bar glows at night (the music is also piped out onto the sidewalk). But the rooms are quiet and plush with earthy tones, including a green satin headboard and a huge bathroom.
On a different trip, I’d stayed in the ultra-luxurious Mansion on Forsyth Park, where guest rooms have lavish bed linens and plump pillows and many windows overlook the city’s largest park and its new amphitheater. One night I saw a group practicing salsa dancing on the amphitheater stage and went outside to watch. It was a Saturday, and later at the swanky Casimir’s Lounge, upstairs from the hotel restaurant, men in seersucker suits and women in strapless cocktail dresses and heels sipped martinis while a three-man band played, the saxophonist wailing on solos. I’d slipped into another celebration. Whether a festival is on or not, it seems there’s always a party somewhere in Savannah.
- AVIA: opened in 2009 with a young, West Coast vibe. 14 Barnard St., (912) 233-2116, www.aviahotels.com
- Mansion on Forsyth Park: plush everything, rich colors, and a restaurant overlooking the park. 700 Drayton St., (912) 238-5158, www.mansiononforsythpark.com
Eat & Drink:
- Circa 1875: Parisian-inspired bistro. 48 Whitaker St., (912) 443-1875, www.circa1875.com
- Crystal Beer Parlor: house-made chowders, Greek salads, and burgers. 301 W. Jones St., (912) 349-1000, www.crystalbeerparlor.com
- Papillote: take-out baguette sandwiches, salads, and pastries. 218 W. Broughton St., (912) 232-1881, www.papillote-savannah.com
- Rancho Alegre: Cuban fare and occasional live music. 402 Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd., (912) 292-1656, www.ranchoalegrecuban.com
- Benedetto Guitars: custom-made guitars and accessories, open by appointment. 10 Mall Terrace, Ste. A, (912) 692-1400, www.benedettoguitars.com
- Jepson Center for the Arts: art, jewelry, and exhibit books. 207 W. York St., (912) 790-8800, www.telfair.org/jepson
- Perry Rubber Bike Shop: retro-hip shop with bike rentals and sales. 240 Bull St., (912) 236-9929, www.perryrubberbikeshop.com
- Southern Charm Antiques: silver sets, caviar spoons, and vintage linens. 250 Bull St., (912) 233-9797
- Hear Ben Tucker and Friends, weekly at the Westin’s Sunday Jazz Brunch. 1 Resort Dr., (912) 201-2000, www.westinsavannah.com
- Experience electronic music and media at the Buttonpushers Society, the third Saturday of each month. The Sentient Bean, 13 E. Park Ave., (912) 232-4447, www.sentientbean.com
- Check out the lineup at the Lucas Theatre for the Arts, a restored circa-1921 theater. International Guitar Night is January 27, 2011. 32 Abercorn St., (912) 525-5040, www.lucastheatre.com
- Visit during the Savannah Music Festival, March 24 to April 9, 2011, and see Béla Fleck, Jazz Meets Brazil: Dianne Reeves and the Chico Pinhiero Quintet, and Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile. Ticket sales open November 10. www.savannahmusicfestival.org