Jazz singer Jebry, a.k.a. Judy Branch, the one-time Harry James Big Band singer who was among the first to bring jazz to Naples since she came here 22 years ago, doesn’t have to look for work. Work comes looking for her.
The owners of a relatively new Naples restaurant, Capri: A Taste of Italy, heard about Jebry’s great band and devoted following, came out to hear the group, and hired them immediately.
Jebry doesn’t have many opening nights, in that the majority of her club work, at places like Norm’s and The Island Pub, has been ongoing for many seasons.
So Thursday Feb. 28 at Capri: A Taste of Italy was indeed a special evening, and befitting such a singular event, Naples jazz fans and jazz players filled the place to capacity.
Long-time Naples music aficionados, who have been following the singer since her appearances at The Witches Brew (a famed, Naples nightspot that was torn down about five years ago), know that an evening with Jebry is not run-of-the-mill entertainment, jazz or otherwise.
Actually, “Jebry and Friends,” as it is billed, revives the lost art of the jazz jam session. There’s nothing new about the concept of a jam session, where singers and instrumentalists of all ages and styles, guest, or “sit-in” as they say in the vernacular, with the rhythm section (in this case, the bassist, drummer and pianist accompanying Jebry).
Jam sessions, in one form or another, have been around since the birth of jazz itself, and there have been some legendary ones throughout jazz history. One that stands out in memory, if only because it was recorded, was an early 1950s meeting of three of the greatest alto saxophonists in jazz, be-bop master Charlie “Yardbird” Parker, multi-instrumentalist/composer Benny Carter and Duke Ellington star soloist, Johnny Hodges.
Jebry’s sessions through the years have featured just about every player and singer of quality in and around the Naples and Marco Island area, to say nothing of those horn players and vocalists visiting from New York, Philadelphia and points north, south, east and west.
On an instrumental basis, just about every pianist and horn player of note in the area has either passed through Jebry’s bands, or has served as a guest with her groups at one time or another. The late, legendary and beloved bop pianist, Kookie Norwood, was one. Others who immediately come to mind are the sublimely lyrical trumpeter Bill Papineau, who was with Jebry for years, and pianist Stu Shelton, a technically astounding artist who leads his own groups and appears often with leader and trumpeter Bob Zottola. Zottola, by the way, appears at Capri with his fine group every Monday night.
The jazz historians will decide whether the Thursday night get-together at Capri: A Taste of Italy belongs in the next book written about jazz history, but it was, without doubt, tremendously entertaining, and that’s what these things are supposed to be.
As another great jazz singer, Joy Adams, is fond of saying: “That’s why they call it playing.”
Jebry’s accompanists, who also back all the guests, are as talented as any national or international “name,” past and present. Pianist Jean Packard, a superb player who knows just about every song ever written, and in any key, has for years been a favorite of famed mainstreamers like Al Cohn, Zoot Sims, Ruby Braff and Harry Allen.
Bassist Richard Lytton is a great swinger with a wonderful ear, whose inventive solos are always a joy to hear. Drummer Bobby Phillips, Jebry’s husband, can — and does — play in any style, with great taste, and with unparalleled technique. No drummer is better at backing up Jebry.
As a vocalist, the star herself is surprisingly versatile, and really transcends categorization as a “jazz” or any other type of singer.
She shouts the blues with the best of them and her country singing is as authentic as any singer on the country charts. Obviously, she shines at jazz, with influences that range from Ella Fitzgerald to Anita O’Day. What makes every night with Jebry so special is her generosity with the stage and with the spotlight. That is, of course, what makes a jam session.
And among the great jammers in attendance and on the stage were singers Betsy Guy (who always shines in her duets with Jebry), the Billy Eckstine-like stylings of Frank Michota (one fine drummer as well), the always-from-the-heart singing of Al Reddington, and my colleague of long-standing — which is why I can describe her as “astounding” — Joy Adams.
Joining the group instrumentally though the night were that master of traditional jazz, cornetist Dick Cashman, master trumpet bopster Marty Krebs, Naples’ pianistic answer to Dave Brubeck, Mel Rosen; clarinetist and saxophonist Karl Zihtilla (whose clarinet work echoed that of the clarinet giant, Buddy DeFranco), and even yours truly, who got in some hot licks on drums and vocals.
It was quite an event, quite a night, quite an opening, and quite a jam session.
Right now, the powers-that-be at Capri: A Taste of Italy have wisely booked Jebry and the group every Thursday for the foreseeable future. It’s easy to see why. As for next Thursday? Who knows what jazz star might show up?
Jebry and Friends perform at Capri: A Taste of Italy, from 6 to 9 p.m. every Thursday.
The restaurant is located in the Riverchase Plaza shopping center at the corner of Immokalee Road and US 41. Call 594-3500 for information.
Bruce H. Klauber, D., Mus., is the biographer of jazz great Gene Krupa and “Jazz Legends” DVD Series Producer for Hudson Music and the Alfred Publishing Company. Contact him on the Web at JazzLegends.com or DrumAlive@aol.com.