By MAUREEN BYRNE
© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000
CLEARWATER -- From the moment the first band took the stage, the judges knew they had a tough job in front of them.
The judges would have to decide which one of four local groups would earn a spot on the Clearwater Jazz Holiday bill.
"We could not be more pleased with the caliber of local talent," said Karen Vann, executive director of the Jazz Holiday. "I am so glad I am not a judge. These musicians are unreal."
In an effort to give area jazz bands a chance to be on the festival's lineup and to draw more year-round attention to the October event, organizers are sponsoring a series of "Band Search" competitions. The first took place last month in Tampa. The second competition was Thursday at Billy G'z Downtown in Clearwater. The final search will be Aug. 23 at Jackson's in Tampa.
Jazz lovers packed Billy G'z on Thursday. Mittie Stephans, a nurse from Tarpon Springs, said she heard about the competition on the radio. Local jazz station WSJT-FM 94.1 is co-sponsoring the competition.
"You hear that?" she asked, referring to the smooth sounds Eric Darius was making with his saxophone. The high school senior from Tampa is a member of Soul Rhythms, the first band to perform Thursday night.
"Doesn't that sound nice?" Stephens, 44, asked.
Darius appreciated that kind of reaction. "It's a great opportunity," said Darius, 17. "To play at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday -- it's a prestigious festival."
Joining Soul Rhythms at Billy G'z were the Litigants, a group of University of South Florida music students fronted by a 17-year-old sax player; the Mike McArthur Group, a five-member band that played a jazzy rendition of the old gospel song Revelation; and the On Que Players, which drew the most fans to the club, many wearing red and white buttons bearing the group's name. Keyboardist Ben Winkler, 20, was a last-minute replacement for the Litigants' injured guitar player. He practiced only two days with the group before jamming with the band Thursday. Being able to fill in with such ease was no problem, he said.
"That's what jazz is all about, really," said Winkler, who received a $2,000 scholarship from the Jazz Holiday Foundation in 1998 and is studying jazz at USF in Tampa.
Four judges sat at a table eating chicken sandwiches and burgers and drinking martinis and beer. But when each band played their 20-minute sets, it was all business. Judging them were Wayne Garcia, a political consultant with Repper, Garcia & Associates and a spokesman for the Jazz Holiday; Kerry O'Riley, a marketing manager at the St. Petersburg Times; Chad Thomas, a marketing manager at Ruth Eckerd Hall; and Vicki Scotti, chairwoman of the Jazz Holiday's music committee.
The audience also got to vote by filling out ballots.
In the end, polish won out over promise, Thomas said. "It was tough," he said. "They were all excellent."
The Mike McArthur Group won the coveted spot. The band will open one day of the Jazz Holiday, which will be Oct. 19-22 at Coachman Park in Clearwater.
"We're obviously very excited to be playing at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday," McArthur said. "I'm blessed to have a great band."