In 2014, it became the Southern Oregon Music Festival. Before that it was the Medford Jazz Festival. When it began in 1989 it was called the Medford Jazz Jubilee. They had eight bands perform that year, and the community exploded in a celebration that has continued for 27 years. Like the Redwood Coast Jazz Festivals in Eureka, CA, the Southern Oregon Music Festival has evolved from the traditional, Dixieland jazz that was the foundation of the first fests, to include all forms of jazz, swing, blues, zydeco, R&B, rockabilly and funk.
From 2:00 pm Friday, Oct. 2 through 4:00 pm Sunday Oct. 4, The SOMF will light up seven blocks of downtown Medford, as 15 bands will provide over 100 hours of entertainment at five different venues. 95 sets of diverse music and dancing await, as preparations for the festivities gear up over the next few weeks.
When I moved to the Eureka area in 1983, I was impressed by the developing culture of the region. The variety of music was part of the picture, and one name that kept appearing in the entertainment listings was Bishop Mayfield. He was fronting a funk band at the time, regularly raising the roof all over Humboldt County. He’s in Central Point, Oregon now, leading a 10-piece band that will be appearing Friday Oct. 2, 9:30pm at KOBI, Studio C. I spoke to Bishop recently about music, and how music has informed his life.
Bishop was born in New York City, and first sang when he was five years old, at the grace Baptist Church in Harlem. Growing up a couple blocks from the Apollo Theater cemented his life in music, as he was able to hear, and meet, some of the greatest recording artists in history. “One of the first songs I loved was Ebb Tide, by Roy Hamilton,” said Mayfield. “We were seeing all kinds of music. The Platters, the Mills Brothers, Clyde McPhatter. Billy Eckstein…Pearl Baily was one of my favorites, and Ella Fitzgerald. Dinah Washington and Billie Holiday performed there often. You’d see these entertainers around town, and they were reachable back then. You’d go in a restaurant and they’d be sitting right there. You could sit down next to Dinah and have a cup of coffee with her.” I asked him if this was a lingering part of the Harlem Renaissance. He said, “You know, it seems like there’s a Harlem Renaissance every few years, but there was something going on ALL the time, that’s for sure. We were fortunate enough to have them come to our schools!”
Mayfield saw more than the greats of jazz and ensemble vocals at the Apollo. While he saw Little Richard, Chuck Berry and James Brown at the dawn of their careers, it was Jackie Wilson who provided a most vivid inspiration. “What a showman,” said Mayfield, “Dressed to the nines, a great singer with sharp moves and steps. I loved him. The Motown revues were part of the picture as well, with great choreography and arrangements.” We’ve all enjoyed the virtuosity of the artists Bishop Mayfield got to see as a youth, but to see them live, in their heyday, imparted values of entertainment and respect. He told me, “B.B. King said to ‘Treat your audience like they’re family, like they were in your own living room,’ and a lot of that is lost now. Like shaking everybody’s hand at a venue, thanking everybody who came out to see him, you don’t see that in entertainment very much.”
Bishop Mayfield’s had a long journey from Harlem. In 1978 he moved to Humboldt County to manage a band from Visalia, CA. “I didn’t leave for 30 years. I formed a band called Straight Shot with a great keyboardist, Charlie Thompson, and had the only funk band in Humboldt County. “ For the Oct. 2 show in Medford, he’ll be leading a 10-piece band, including a three-piece horn section with a trumpet, trombone and sax, and 2 female singers, 2 guitars, bass and drums. Drummer Denny Carmassi played with Ronnie Montrose and Oregon’s beloved band, Heart. One of the guitar players is Dave Storie, who also played a large role in the musical melting pot that was Humboldt county in the 80’s, and continues to perform and collaborate with Mayfield.
An energetic and enthusiastic player, I remember Storie’s work behind the scenes as well as onstage. At one venue, the venerable Jambalaya Club in Arcata, musicians were endangered by a rotten floor and stage, and Storie assembled a crew of volunteers who rebuilt the crumbling structures, because nobody else was doing it. His perpetual smile is how I remember him from those days, and his laser focus on the music, playing as part of the song, unobtrusive yet vibrant.
The band will be performing originals, Otis Redding songs and Gospel music, starting at 9:30 pm Friday night at KOBI Studio C, the Festival’s premier dance venue, with a 1,200 square foot professional-grade, wood dance floor.
Having musicians visit area classrooms is a big aspect of the Southern Oregon Music Festival. I spoke with Dennis Ramsden, the Executive Director of the Southern Oregon Music Festival, and he outlined how they’re bringing music to the schools. “For 26 years now, we’ve been involved with bringing music to the students of 30 Rogue Valley elementary and middle schools,” he said. “We have bands split into a couple groups and visit the classrooms, performing the rudiments of traditional and contemporary American music. The students get involved, and so do the teachers, as the musicians get them performing songs and dances from the 60’s and 70’s, with everybody having a great time.
This year, we’ve got High Street, from Boise, Idaho, repeating their role from last year with the kids. They’re a Zoot Suit band; I think they have every color suit there is. And the kids just get so excited. Being a 10-piece band, they split up into a couple groups, and go out to the schools a week before the Festival.” And the result? “Once the kids become involved, they become better students. Learning the basics of music requires commitment, practice, and discipline. Statistics indicate that learning music gives the students benefits that carry over to other studies, and into the rest of their lives.”
Ramsden also described a couple of new programs that have begun in the last few years; instrument donation and classroom music instruction.
“There are three components in the instrument donation program,” he told me. “The Festival, collecting used instruments from donors, the band instructors in the schools, and the repair shop. They’re like partners, networking to meet their needs and distributing instruments where they’ll help the most. And we’ve got people going out to Central Medford High, teaching guitar classes to disadvantaged kids. This has proven very successful. We also hold guitar classes at Jackson County Juvenile Detention Center. For many of these students, this is the first time they’ve had anybody trust them, to give them a chance. And we’ve already seen many lives turned around. If they maintain good grades and meet certain qualifications, they get to keep their guitars. We have limited scholarships for lessons.” And while these programs just date back to 2011, the enthusiasm among all involved points to more music for more students.
Festival Marketing director Gwenne Wilcox added, “The Festival is committed to including more diverse styles of music, as evidenced by the inclusion of performers such as Bishop Mayfield, Danny Maika and Leify Green, in an effort to attract a broader demographic audience. Our goal is to be able to offer Festival sponsored events throughout the year at our sponsored venues, which will help engage our community’s support for all live music in the area.”
Bishop Mayfield remembers school in the 1950’s. “We had music in the schools, but we didn’t have a name for it,” he says. I asked him if any “name” players stopped by his classroom. “Well, sure. Dinah Washington, Lionel Hampton, Roy Hamilton, Cab Calloway, Count Basie. They would play a little bit, tell you stuff to get you interested in learning to be a musician. They’d share their skills and their ideas, inspire you to know what it’s like being a musician.”
The sharing continues the first weekend in October — a great local festival that has grown into an institution, feeding the soul of the community, gathering friends and family for the excitement and wonder of live music. It’s called the Southern Oregon Music Festival!
Raised in Humboldt County, “Good Rockin’ Derral” Campbell has been programming blues music on the radio since 1986. Derral hosts Late Night Blues Saturdays from 10 pm to midnight on JPR’s Rhythm & News Service, from their Redding studio. He is also learning photography and plays saxophone in Redding’s Blues Rollers