Willingboro Jazz Festival marks 30 years

From left, Stephanie Price of Norfolk, Va.; Laverne Chambers of Willingboro; and Vera Ruff from Kissimmee, Fla., sing along.
From left, Stephanie Price of Norfolk, Va.; Laverne Chambers of Willingboro; and Vera Ruff from Kissimmee, Fla., sing along. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 20, 2013

WILLINGBORO - By midafternoon Sunday, a mini-tent city had sprung up on the sprawling grounds of Millcreek Park as thousands warmed to soulful songs.

They came from near and far for the 30th anniversary of the Willingboro Jazz Festival, a massive community block party and jazz concert all in one, with the smell of barbecued chicken in the air.

Michael Gale of Riverside, N.J., a cooler at his feet, sat up front on a lawn chair near the stage, "the best seat in the house."

"I'm having a fabulous time," said the retiree, 61. "You couldn't ask for a better day."

Behind Gale were hundreds of bodies on lawn chairs. Others lay on blankets while some danced. Not even the overcast sky and occasional raindrops dampened the party mood.

Vera Ruff, 54, a medical biller who lives in Kissimmee, Fla., was visiting with friends and family in Sicklerville. Her best friend, Laverne Chambers, 53, an emergency room technician from Willingboro, sat next to her.

"This is real, good, old-fashioned music," Ruff said as she bobbed her head and swayed her arms to songs by Sly and the Family Stone tribute band Everyday People, which included Fats Domino's daughter, Karen Domino White.

Sponsored by the Willingboro Township Parks and Recreation Department, the festival began at noon and went until 9 p.m. Sunday at the park off Beverly Rancocas Road.

Except for a $10 parking charge, the event was free to the public - probably why attendance mushroomed with each hour. By 7 p.m., the crowd had grown to about 4,000, according to organizers.

"We have more big-name acts this year," said Dennis James, president of the Ray of Light Music Group of Edgewater Park, and who works for the Parks and Recreation Department as music director, booking artists and coordinating equipment for all the township's concerts. "It's popular because of its longevity. It's known throughout the East Coast."

More than 20 acts - almost all homegrown artists - performed on two stages, including Roy Ayers and Jeff Bradshaw. There was the main stage for jazz acts, and a smaller one behind it - a new addition this year - to attract a younger crowd and feature up-and-coming rap, R&B, and hip-hop artists.

Rapper Doug E. Fresh of New York - who hit the peak of his popularity in the late 1980s and '90s - was among those who took the small stage just after 8:15 p.m., as its headlining act. Newcomer rappers Six Nine, DyShon, and Lastdaze performed earlier.

The second stage "is to make [the jazz festival] more diversified," said Yamira Pizarro, stage manager at Vemapro, a video management company in Philadelphia. About three dozen vendors - all Willingboro businesses - set up shop under tents to sell food and merchandise, such as purses and jewelry. Several set up barbecue stands. The Willingboro Democratic Committee Club and the Willingboro branch of the NAACP also had booths.

Music director James said Willingboro Township pays for all the acts, their equipment, security, park cleanup, and police. This year, the township received $60,000 in private donations and from fund-raisers to put on the event.

"It's been," he said, "a huge success."

Contact Suzette Parmley at 215-854-2855, sparmley@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @SuzParmley.

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