Smooth Sounds Downtown
Norfolk Jazz Fest to hit a high note at Town Point Park

   By E. David Vida
Article originally written for Soundings

Hampton Roads always offers up a good mix of music and shows to satisfy all tastes.

Whether it’s the grand stage of the mega amphitheaters, or the smaller stage of the Norva, or the even smaller stages of the bar circuit around town; there’s always a good band playing somewhere. Music festivals also pop up with regularity, and the summer months brings a diverse bunch of acts to the area.

On Aug. 4 and 5, jazz fans can soak up some smooth sounds when Norfolk hosts their 24th Annual Norfolk Jazz Festival at Town Point Park. The festival will feature national jazz artists like Brian Culbertson, Warren Hill and Kim Waters, as well as the Guitar and Saxes Tour featuring Gerald Albright, Jeff Golub, Peter White and many more.

But it wouldn’t be a local festival without some local jazz bands on the bill. RaJazz and Forte, both from Hampton Roads, will take the stage and open the show with some favorite timeless cover songs and original numbers.

But like many local bands, members are often not full-time musicians. They have day jobs. RaJazz band leader and keyboardist Rogers Brown, a music professor at Norfolk State University, has taught a wide range of students, many of them members of a variety of bands around the Hampton Roads.

Some of his former students are a part of local talents like The Fuzz Band and Seed Is… and even the band leader and sax player of local partnering act for the jazz festival, Forte’s Brian Pinner, a quality specialist for Virginia’s Dominion Power, has taken Brown’s music courses while studying NSU.

“He’s a great musician,” Pinner said. “He taught me how to read and perform jazz music. He also wrote some of the best scores for marching band.”

Brown has been teaching music at NSU for 26 years. He’s seen the Norfolk Jazz Festival grow from its university beginnings on the campus grounds before being taken up by Norfolk’s Festevents, which has taken the festival over to the downtown Waterside area. He has seen plenty of acts take the stage and many of them have been his own students.
“If you’ve been teaching as long as I have, the years start to run together,” he said with a laugh.

And so does the long list of students who graduated from his classes over the years. Many of them now have their own musical careers in a variety of genres. Even his current sax player and vocalist DeCarlo Woodhouse is a Class of 1997 graduate of NSU.

For these two local groups, playing gigs around town is a must and, even though they have their day jobs, they occasionally take their gigs on the road to nearby festivals.

“We play out constantly,” said Pinner. “(Recently) we played the Af’ram Festival and we’re currently slated to play Bay Days (in Sept. 8-10)…We hit all the major festivals.”

Along with the festivals, Pinner explained, Forte brings their music to local clubs in the area: The Train Station and Rob’s Class Act in Newport News, and the Main Street Jazz Restaurant in Suffolk.

RaJazz also works the local jazz places as well.

“We’ve played around at a few places,” Brown said. “We played in New Orleans a couple of times for the Bayou Classic (festival) and in Washington D.C.”

But jazz is not the only genre of music in the RaJazz repertoire; they specialize in many different styles of music.

“We have a reputation for playing a variety of music,” Brown said. “We play party music and dance music…All musicians are trained in a variety of styles.”

Having this under their belt makes them more versatile and keeps the gigs coming. This holds true for both bands and they have been known to play parties, private functions and weddings, wherever the demand is needed.

As for their live shows, both bands and their leaders want to assure the crowd is pleased with every performance.

“My keyboard player has a good feel of reading the crowd,” Pinner said of Forte’s keyboardist Pete Jaymes. On their website,, Pinner describes this talent as “situational awareness” and that Jaymes knows how to work it well. Depending on the audience, the band will play a song differently at different gigs.

For Brown’s band, members take their turn showcasing their talent and virtuosity with their instruments.

“In RaJazz everyone solos at some point (in the show),” Brown said. “No one person will be completely featured at one time…This keeps the energy going, too.”

As one of the trademarks in jazz music, one song can be played 10 different ways and same goes with these two bands’ performances, which makes every show unique and fresh every time.

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