Although I was around to enjoy jazz at The Back Door in Stroudsburg and The Lone Pine Inne in Henryville away back in the 70’s, I have somehow managed to stay blissfully ignorant of the finer points of the genre. Of course I know who Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker and John Coltraine are, but I bet you a donut I would not be able to accurately identify one from the other by listening to a jazz recording. Heck, I can’t even do that with bluegrass half the time.
I could demur and blame it on the fact that I am still trying to learn to play songs I first heard in the 70’s, or that after I moved away from the audio footprint of Alison Steele, I boycotted any radio show in which I was not the jock (thanks, WJC!), or because I wanted to stay pure to my own musical sensibilities, whatever the blazes they are.
I suspect the real reason is that I was just too busy drinking beer and having fun. So a large part of it all you can chalk up to pure natural laziness. I accidentally learned some stuff over the years, and just recently realized that if I used pomade on my hair and cut my mustache down to Clarke Gable dimensions, I would look a lot like Cab Calloway. I do love that stuff! And knowledge must have gotten into the twisted labyrinth that is my defective brain-pan, because I once exhaustively researched an article on Bushkill falls and unwittingly turned the founder, Charlie Peters, into Charlie Parker.
They were not amused.
Anyhow, I was honored to be given the opportunity to write about the COTA fest and a myriad of jazz related pieces over the years, and because I had played and/or recorded with many of these kind musicians, I knew them well enough to write about them with some accuracy and regard. The illusion to Branson in the following piece I will blame on Chris Soleday, who married Bob and Faye’s daughter Donna and consequently inherited stewardship of The Deer Head Inn. Soliday once claimed that founder Bob Lehr actually considered the “new” country music for a time before settling on jazz.
I knew Bob, and it’s possible, but it might just have been a good story.
Hard to say if Delaware Water Gap missed a chance at being the Branson, Missouri of the East some sixty years ago. What is certain is that when Bob Lehr chose jazz over country-western for his new business venture, the Deer Head Inn became an epicenter of jazz and an incubator for three generations of stellar jazz musicians.
It began with piano players like Keith Jarrett, and was followed for years by the weekly treat of Johnny Coates, whose elegant arrangements and jazz sensibilities drew fans and put the place on the map.
And it was there that tavern owner Ed Joubert, trombonist Rick Chamberlain and sax player Phil Woods concocted the idea for an arts festival called The Celebration of the Arts, or COTA. That yearly event is often known simply as “The Jazz Festival”, as if it were the only one in the country. For those who play or attend the event, it is.
“I really don’t have any distinct first memories of the festival. My parents took me there since I was borne and I haven’t missed one. Everything circles around the COTA festival. It’s my favorite and the most important thing in my life of music. I remember in 1993 I was over at my grandma’s house and we went over to see John Coates [at the Deer Head]. I was always going over to see him. Then when I heard the Phil Woods Orchestra CD that came out in 1998, I knew I had to play the sax,” said Jay Rattman, who explained that he was in 5th grade in that year.
His interest in the instrument led to his participation in the “COTA Cats,” comprised of area high school students who get the giddy and sometimes nerve-wracking delight of playing on the same stage as world-class jazz musicians for audiences in the thousands who hang on every note.
Not all the “children of the jazz” went on to play, but many are still inextricably linked to the Gap and the festival. Jason Wilson has deep family ties to the COTA festival. His mother Nancy was a volunteer at the first festivals, his uncle Martin is curator of the Dutot museum, and his father Bob is one of the “new” owners of the Deer Head.
“I can remember getting my face painted. I had four different ideas and I remember not liking some of them. I’d wash them off and finally settled on a tiger—that seemed to work for me. I remember being in the theater in the Castle [Inn] and playing in the kid’s area when Bob [Dorough] was playing, and just sitting on the hill hanging with the family,” Wilson recalled, laughing.
The Castle Inn burned down in the late 80’s, but today’s stage is set up next to a set of cement stairs with a mosaic of the name leading to the back-stage area. There, under a large tent littered with instrument cases, musicians sit at tables going over charts while the COTA cats rehearse before taking the stage.
Jay Rattman’s brother Jonno brought a friend of his backstage to soak in the music, and a young Davey Lance, whose family is steeped in the musical tradition, was immediately taken. His father David Lance II teaches at East Stroudsburg High School South and composes choral arrangements that are critically acclaimed, following the tradition of the eldest primal Lance, who also figured in Davey’s memory.
“I must have been in 5th or 6th grade, and I was running around with Jonno Rattman. He knew the area very well and he was working stage crew, so he took me back there and I got to talk with the musicians. My grandpa was back there too, and Bob Dorough. As the years went on it became more like family,” Davey Lance said recently, days away from leaving for Julliard, the gold standard of music schools.
“I’m off to Julliard in four days, and just getting prepared. It’s the most exciting time of my life,” he said, explaining that out of all the CD’s the school received from hopeful applicants, only four or five were invited to audition, and only one selected.
As exciting as that is, Davey Lance III said that when the weekend after Labor Day comes around, he’ll look forward to returning to where it all began, back to Delaware Water Gap and the Deer Head Inn.
“I have a gig at the Deerhead playing with the COTA Cats Alumni on Friday, and I might be sitting in later in the weekend,” he said, proving the strong link forged in the land between the mountains and a long line of excellent musicians.