Kenneth Burns introduces El Clan Destino at the 2007 Isthmus Jazz Festival.
It's almost eerie, really, just how pleasant the Memorial Union Terrace can be on a warm night. Thursday evening the dire weather forecast apparently kept many revelers away from the Isthmus Jazz Festival on the terrace, but Friday night everything was clicking. When the High School Jazz All-Stars began playing at 5:30, the sun was bright, the breeze pleasant, the bratwurst lines manageable.
My job was to emcee, and having emceed many events over the years, I have learned a few things about the gig, namely:
It's pretty easy. As long as you're dressed reasonably well and don't have food on your teeth, it's hard to mess up. My task last night was made easier still by the fact that I had been given a list of sponsors to thank. In these situations, I sometimes have to ad lib and generally fail miserably at it. But I can read a list.
But talking into microphones is different. Years ago Ken Fitzsimmons, the Kissers front man, told me that even though sound systems do amplify the voice, it's still necessary to practically shout into microphones in order to be heard. He was right. It's also necessary, in most cases, to hold the microphone very close to the mouth. Too often I see people holding microphones practically at their waists, and wondering why they can't be heard.
The emcee has to be on time. Although the task of emceeing is simple, emcees do have one duty that they must get right infallibly. They must be near the stage and ready to leap into action at the precise moment that the band is ready to begin. I find it's helpful to start lurking around the stage about half an hour before the set starts, and also to inform the bandleader, the sound technician and anyone else who will listen that there are going to be some brief announcements before the music. Live music events tend to be chaotic, and in the absence of other information bands will simply start playing, as they indeed they have shown up to do. But this means the emcee won't get to thank the sponsors, and that's not good for anyone.
The emcee is not the star. As I see it, the most important task of the emcee is to get out of the way as quickly as possible so that the musicians can start working.
And it was a pleasure to introduce Friday's musicians: the fresh-faced high school all-stars; the Tim Whalen Nonet, whose big, brassy arrangements were simply dazzling; the Afro-Cuban combo El Clan Destino, who dared the audience not to dance.
And especially luminous Gerri Dimaggio, who was named jazz personality of the year in a presentation by Isthmus publisher Vince O'Hern. Of all the jazz instruments, I like the human voice the best, and with her compatriots Kelly DeHaven and Jeannie Woodall, Dimaggio turned in a delightful set of sumptuous, witty singing. At one point, gesturing at the stage, the lake, the audience, at what was left of the sunset, Dimaggio asked: Does it get any better than this?
It was a rhetorical question, but the answer was: Nope. Summer is here, and there is music in the air.