Saturday, June 20, 2015

Bria Skonberg: A New, Vibrant Addition to the World of Jazz

Music festivals are a perfect way to discover new talent. A few years ago I noticed the contagious, unique and exciting sound of the Southern Rock group that opened for the legendary Lynyrd Skynyrd at Lansing's Common Ground Festival. The group was Blackberry Smoke and I have been a fan ever since.

The musical genre of jazz is appreciated by small numbers of fans in North America. This music is much more popular in Europe or Asia. The good thing about this is that North Americans can attend jazz festivals and performances for a low price.

This past weekend I attended the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival in East Lansing, Michigan. Admission is free and one can enjoy 2 days of excellent jazz performances. As the home of Michigan State University, this town has developed into an area that attracts some top-notch jazz artists. One key factor for this is the school's jazz department, and their impressive faculty. The jazz faculty at MSU is comprised of seasoned veterans who have appeared with some of the top performers at some of the world's most hallowed venues. Due to their connections, they are able to attract the biggest names in jazz to work as artists-in-residence and clinicians at the university. Find out more about them here.

I had heard about a trumpet player performing at the festival. As a brass player myself, I decided to take in her show. Trumpet player/singer/songwriter Bria Skonberg took the stage with her band at the Summer Solstice Jazz Festival and captivated the crowd. Her versatility is what was impressive. With the appearance of a Nordic supermodel and a bubbly, playful personality to match, she turns heads. However, it is her old-school way of singing mixed with her confident trumpet playing that makes for a Big Easy gumbo that is a feast for the ears. She has an appreciation for the past, but yet keeps a foot in the present as well. She has mentioned Louis Armstrong and Anita O'Day as 2 of her influences. Hailing originally from British Columbia, Canada she has lived in the Big Apple since 2010. At age 31, she has appeared at over 50 jazz festivals around the globe.

The Wall Street Journal exclaimed the she is "poised to be one of the most versatile and imposing musicians of her generation." She plays New Orleans jazz like the Louis Armstrong disciple that has made her unique. She is an award-winning artist who has been lauded by DownBeat magazine. She played with filmmaker/clarinet player Woody Allen in his Dixieland jazz band at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City.

Her albums include "Fresh", "So is the Day" and "Into your Own". She put her own interpretation on the 1996 pop single "Lovefool" by The Cardigans. She performs the classic "Come On A-My House" with a style that matches the original by Rosemary Clooney. She performs some of her singles such as "Won't You Come Out and Play" and "Wear and Tear" with a sense of mischief and whimsy that will captivate anyone who appreciates the work of a fine artist. She takes a standard like "Tea for Two" and transforms it into a piece that sports a contemporary flair.

She is a fan of standup comedy, and sees the similarity between the struggle of a comic and that of a jazz musician. She is working on putting the routines of the legendary George Carlin to music.

Here's what one critic said of this impressive new artist.

“Bria Skonberg’s new CD is like a breath of fresh air in a stuffy room…She has a voice that is pure and almost little girl in quality except on bluesey items where she displays some of the authority of Dinah Washington…This is a totally fun album and very contagious. There is never a dull moment…most of all there is the bright, inquisitive talents and spirit of Bria Skonberg who promises to be a mighty musical force.”
- Marcia Hillman, New York Jazz Record

Samples of her music, You Tube links, photos and other press materials can be found here.

*Some information from, and Lansing City Pulse from June 17, 2015.

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Highest Rated TV Shows

Nielsen Media Research has tracked the numbers for radio audiences since 1947. They have tracked television audiences since 1950. Here are some of the #1 broadcast television shows over the years.

1950-51 Texaco Star Theatre
61.6 rating, NBC, starred Milton Berle, known as "Mr. Television".

1952-53 I Love Lucy
67.3 rating (the highest in history), CBS, starred Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.

1960-61 Gunsmoke
37.3, CBS, starred James Arness.

1970-71 Marcus Welby, MD
29.6, ABC, starred Robert Young and James Brolin.

1980-81 Dallas
34.5, CBS, starred Larry Hagman, Patrick Duffy, Linda Gray, Victoria Principal and more.

1990-91 Cheers
21.3, NBC, starred Ted Danson, Shelley Long, Kelsey Grammer and more.
This show was a key part of NBC's "Must See TV" lineup which also included shows like The Cosby Show and Family Ties.

2000-01 Survivor: The Australian Outback
17.4, CBS, starring Jeff Probst.
This was a monster hit in the reality genre, which continues to be popular to this day.

2010-11 American Idol
14.5, Fox, starring Simon Cowell.
Actually, from the 2005-06 season to the 2010-11 season, American Idol was the #1 show on broadcast television.

2014-15 Sunday Night Football
14.8, NBC, starring commentators Al Michaels and Cris Collinsworth.

TV is not the novelty that it once was. In the early days of television there was no competition from cable TV, broadcast was the only option. Today the broadcast TV landscape is facing serious competition. Many get their entertainment from cable channels, You Tube, Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Prime or other streaming services. Over time, the broadcast numbers will continue to shrink more and more. A rating of 15 is impressive by today's standards, but 25 years ago, it would not be a strong number. Broadcast outlets are shifting more emphasis to the internet as the habits of consumers change.

*Information from

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Sammy Davis Jr.---Short in Stature, but a Showbiz Giant

A few days ago I watched the David Letterman 5th year anniversary show from 1987. This was Dave's NBC 12:35 am show that followed Johnny Carson. One of his guests was Sammy Davis Jr. I realized that this was only 3 years prior to Sammy's death, but he looked and sounded as good as ever.

Sammy Davis Jr. packed a lot of living into his too short 64 years on earth. At age 4, in 1929, he started performing with his father, Sammy Davis Sr. and his adopted uncle Will Mastin. They would travel to Vaudeville theatres and little Sam learned the ropes of how to be a performer. In 1933, at age 8, he acted in 2 short films, Rufus Jones for President and Seasoned Greetings. Due to being on the road as a kid, he never had formal education.

In 1954 he was involved in a car accident that caused him to lose one of his eyes. He wore an eye patch for awhile but then decided to have a glass eye implanted. At this time he converted to Judaism.

He developed into a multi-talented powerhouse who could sing, dance, act and play the drums. He had a lot of talent and personality packed into a 5'5" frame. He was a member of the showbiz fraternity known as The Rat Pack with fellow stars Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, Peter Lawford and Joey Bishop.

During his stint in the military and afterwards, Davis fought against the closed minded racists that he came across. He once heard someone complaining about discrimination, and he said, "You got it easy. I'm a short, ugly, one-eyed, black Jew. What do you think it's like for me?"

He had many hits as a singer including The Candy Man, which was a #1 hit, Mr. Bojangles, I've Gotta Be Me, What Kind of Fool Am I, and many others. He acted in many films, some with the Rat Pack guys and some without. He appeared in Ocean's Eleven (the Rat Pack version, long before the George Clooney film), Robin and His Seven Hoods, Cannonball Run, and his final film, Tap. In his final movie he starred with another renowned tap dancer, Gregory Hines.

Like his fellow Rat Pack member Frank Sinatra, there were rumors of Davis Jr.'s ties to the mob. But, in the early days of showbiz, the mob had ownership of many of the nation's largest entertainment venues. So, entertainers could not help but have affiliations with the world of organized crime. Jerry Lewis wrote about this in his book "Dean and Me: A Love Story". Martin and Lewis were regulars at New York's Copacabana, owned by mobsters.

Davis made a lot of money over the years, but also lost a lot. He was notorious for being a Las Vegas high roller. When he died in 1990, he was deep in debt to the IRS. It was said that he earned $50 million over his lifetime but died with debts totalling $10 million. After his death, his family liquidated his estate and his last wife lived in poverty (Altovise Davis). According to an NPR interview with a Davis biographer, Sammy was a fantastic performer, but a rotten parent. He was distant with his kids and after his death there was considerable turmoil in his family battling over his possessions.

He was married 3 times and he had 4 children. Michael Jackson said that he idolized Davis for his massive talent. He was a regular on the Jerry Lewis telethon. Davis was a star of Broadway, film, TV and live performances. He appeared in a memorable episode of All in the Family where he kissed bigot Archie Bunker on the cheek just as their photo was being taken. He also appeared with Sherman Hemsley in The Jeffersons. His other TV appearances included: The Cosby Show, Batman, Laugh-In, One Life to Live, General Hospital and The Patty Duke Show. He died of throat cancer in 1990. He died on the same day as Muppets creator Jim Henson.

Some material from