Piedmont Park will swing deep into Memorial Day weekend when the Atlanta Jazz Festival kicks off with three days of free performances by jazz legends and emerging artists. One of the largest showcases of its kind nationwide, the annual event is synonymous with pup tents pitched to shield listeners from the sunshine, food trucks and family-friendly entertainment that tends to wrap ‘round midnight.
But as any hardcore fan will tell you, the party — which turns 39 this summer — does not really get started until Ernest Gregory takes the stage as emcee and implores his audience, “Atlanta . . . show your love!” to introduce each set.
Love is at the heart of everything Gregory does. He has a robust presence on social media, where his Facebook friends were recently treated to this behind-the-scenes observation:
“Rehearsal now begins . . . my goodness, Sherman Irby just played a blues this morning that was more tastier [sic] than a homemade buttermilk biscuit, smothered with homemade sausage gravy, no butter needed, umm.”
When reached by phone in Manhattan, where Gregory manages stage operations for Jazz@Lincoln Center, he explains, “You can’t fake it if there’s no love or affinity for this music. You can’t window-dress. It’s got to be an extension of who you are, and I’ve got nothing but love for the genre.”
A child of Steubenville, Ohio, Gregory grew up in a harmonious, wholesome and vibrant community anchored by a steel mill. There is only a slight trace of irony in his voice when citing his birthplace as “the home of Dean Martin.” From a very early age, he was attracted to a wide range of people and personalities, and says his curiosity was satisfied by an integrated setting where “I could cross the street to eat lasagna and spaghetti with my Italian neighbors, or go down the block to have goulash with my Polish neighbors.”
One of seven children in a very close-knit family, Gregory borrowed something from each of his earliest influences. There were childhood piano lessons for him and his siblings. Two of his four brothers played trumpet and drums in their high school bands. An older brother was a jazz fanatic who idolized Miles Davis and introduced his kid brother to “real jazz.” His mother insisted upon dressing her children in their very best, whether for Easter Sunday or an ordinary day. And you can hear the smile in Gregory’s voice when recalling his dad’s “swagger,” and the way he wore a suit and hat every day.
Likewise, Camille Russell Love, executive director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, says that Gregory’s personal style is part of his appeal. “Ernie is an integral part of the Atlanta Jazz Festival weekend, just like the stage and the vendors and the acts,” she says. “I think of him with his button-down guayabera shirt, hat and shades. He is just the epitome of cool.”
Russell Love formalized the city’s relationship with Gregory as master of ceremonies when her tenure began 18 years ago. But his devotion to the festival started in 1978 when former Mayor Maynard Jackson founded what was originally named The Atlanta Free Jazz Festival and announced his intention “to make Atlanta the jazz capital of the South.”
Back then, Gregory, whose career with a Fortune 500 company brought him to Atlanta to help recruit engineers for MARTA, hosted a jazz-format program for WCLK in his spare time. Based on his deep knowledge about music and gregarious personality, Jackson pressed him into service as an ad hoc ambassador for the city, picking up guests at the airport and showing them around town.
Max Roach, Miles Davis and Carmen McRae were all beneficiaries of Gregory’s Southern hospitality with a Midwestern twist, while his proximity to artistic genius deepened his appreciation for their cultural contributions.
Whether talking about jazz greats like Art Blakey or boy wonders like Theo Croker — a trumpeter, vocalist, composer, and bandleader who is the grandson of jazz legend Doc Cheatham — who will perform this weekend, Gregory’s enthusiasm is unwavering. “Theo has a fabulous view and take of the music,” says Gregory. “He’s of a younger generation, but his head is on right and he’s very spiritual in his presentation. He’s really soulful and can play.”
As Gregory highlights a roster of other artists he looks forward to introducing this weekend, it becomes clear that he knows and loves the musicians.
Bassist Ben Williams and trumpeter Christian Scott, both of whom will perform with the Next Collective group on Friday night, get honorable mentions for their academic pedigrees (Williams earned his Masters at the Juilliard School and Scott was educated at the Berklee College of Music) and real-world bona fides.
Gregory Porter gets a shout-out as one of his generation’s most soulful jazz singer-songwriters. And éminence grise Benny Golson, a composer, arranger, lyricist, producer and tenor saxophonist who first appeared in the festival in the ’80s, will be a welcome sight when the Benny Golson Quartet holds court on Sunday night.
An avid photographer since receiving a camera for Father’s Day in 2002, Gregory was mentored by fine art photographer Frank Stewart and estimates there are 30,000-40,000 images of jazz musicians in his personal archives today.
No surprise, his style as a shooter is as improvisational as jazz itself.
“If you are not attuned to the music — where particular phrases and certain gestures have special meaning — you could miss a wink or a smile between musicians in response to a note one of them has played,” he says. “But in anticipating those moments, I am able to convey something in my photography.”
Giancarlo Pirrone, a native of Palermo, Italy, Atlanta resident and lifelong jazz fan, calls Gregory “an icon, total hero and social activist” for his commitment to the art form and the fundamentals of harmony.
“Atlanta needs a gathering place where it can look at itself . . . where blacks and whites can mingle and expose their kids to better music than what’s broadcast on the airwaves” says Pirrone. “And Ernie’s contribution to that ideal has been vital.”