Summertime goes with jazz. Just look around any Sunday afternoon at Jazz at the Albright-Knox. People kick back, drinking up the sounds of George Gershwin with lemonade and potato chips at the ready. It's a perfect afternoon.
But there's another jazz festival, one that too many people haven't discovered. It happens once a year, at Martin Luther King Jr. Park. It's called the Pine Grill Reunion, and it pays tribute to a bygone Jefferson Avenue jazz club.
The Pine Grill Reunion, which takes place Sunday, is in its 15th year. Funded by the city and private sponsors, it's a great Buffalo success story. It's free. It showcases national artists. Hundreds of people attend. Great food is for sale, cheap -- but even in these fussy times, you can bring in your own cooler.
As concerts go, it's heaven. There's just one catch: You have to show up.
That's right -- the musicians, unfortunately, are not going to bring their acts to your back yard. You have to drive, or walk, as the case may be, to Martin Luther King Jr. Park, which is on Best Street by the Museum of Science.
Frustratingly, that seems to be more than a lot of people can do.
Journalists are good at spinning numbers, so let's say this: Whites are the fastest-growing population at the Pine Grill Reunion. First, there were four, then maybe 10, and now there are a few dozen.
Agnes Bain, director of the African-American Cultural Center, has noticed, with pleasure, the modest increase. "In the last few years, there have been more white people in the park," she says. "Each year, it's becoming more diverse."
It's gracious of her to say that. But from where I sit (front and center, with box wine and potato salad), white faces are still very few. Wouldn't it be nice if there were a few more? Just to, you know, be neighborly? Do we have to live up to our reputation as one of the nation's most segregated cities?
The Pine Grill Reunion doesn't need anyone new to survive. But everyone enjoys diversity. It makes us feel good. And while African-Americans are used to going out on a limb, whites aren't.
In the case of this concert, that's a shame. It's too bad that the folks who devoured Ken Burns' "Jazz" series on PBS weren't at the park to hear Duke Ellington's legendary trumpet player, Harry "Sweets" Edison, shortly before he died. Or that free-wheeling blues fans, supposedly so adventurous, missed their last chance to hear singer Etta Jones.
Come on-a my house, as Rosemary Clooney sang. Every August, the black community tells the rest of us, in effect: We're offering you a dynamite concert, and it's free! But for once, you have to come to us.
Organizers try to make it easy. Former Common Council President George K. Arthur, a major force behind the event, explains that it starts at 4 p.m. so that a jazz fan can fit it in after the concert at the Albright-Knox.
"Sometimes the past publicity of the neighborhood and the East Side makes people afraid to come to the black community for the first time," Arthur says. "But once they come and see the crowd, the atmosphere, the friendliness, they come back."
The Pine Grill Reunion lost one of its big sponsors recently when Adelphia, which had its own blues, withdrew. But even on a budget, this year's lineup is very attractive. It features singer Melba Joyce, who appeared on Broadway in "Black and Blue" and starred in the national tour; Buffalo-born organ virtuoso Billy Nunn; and drummer Winard Harper, a hit in the past.
How about it, jazz fans? Our own neighborhood festivals are well and good.
But when we're invited somewhere else, it's sometimes nice to accept.