Debbie Croft: Jazz greats to appear at Columbia College

The 35th annual Vocal Jazz Festival will bring hundreds of high school and college students from Northern California to Columbia College. It’s a weekend packed with workshops, clinics, concerts and much more.

The festival will take place Friday and March 1.

“This festival is the highlight of the year,” said Columbia’s Jazz Series director Rod Harris.

During the two days, music students benefit from instruction and interaction with professional musicians. Question-and-answer sessions will be held.

Harris regularly invites top professional musicians to the college for this and other events. Students, community members and visitors are treated to performances by local and national talent.

Three outstanding guest artists will judge student performances and headline the evening concerts: Barbara Morrison, Don Shelton and Elaine Gibbs.

Known for her vocal range of 2 1/2 octaves, Morrison’s rich, soulful voice has been heard on radio, television and stage for more than 50 years. She toured with the Count Basie Orchestra and with Ray Charles. She has appeared with other jazz and blues greats, including Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Tony Bennett, Mel Tormé, Etta James and Doc Severinsen’s Big Band.

She has traveled the world and been featured on more than 20 albums. She now performs with Jack Hale, a popular Southern California musician.

With refined style and voice, Shelton sings and plays saxophone, clarinet and flute. His music career began early as the son of a saxophonist. He sang with the Trends on Rusty Draper’s radio show, and eventually landed a spot with the Hi-Lo’s. The group earned three Grammy nominations. They performed on numerous television shows before retiring in 1963.

Shelton and Gene Puerling, also of the Hi-Lo’s, moved to Chicago to form The Singers Unlimited, a jazz vocal group. In the 1960s, Shelton’s famous voice was the “crackle” in Rice Krispies commercials. He now resides in the Los Angeles area.

Gibbs is a recording and performing artist who appeared on the first season of “The X Factor.” Previously she sang gospel and rhythm and blues, performing with The Temptations, Chaka Chan, Kenneth “Babyface” Edmonds, Rod Stewart and Justin Timberlake. She traveled extensively with Chuck Wansley After Hours. She has also performed for television and film, including doing voiceovers with Disney Studios.

A recent newcomer to Columbia’s music scene, this performance will be Gibbs’ first appearance at the Vocal Jazz Festival.

Backing up guest artists will be the all-star band: pianist LeRoy Bumgarner; college jazz instructor Clinton Day on bass; David Hawkes, Mike Miller and Mario Flores – all professional percussionists; Ken Taylor on trombone; Josh Lewicki on trumpet; Gordon Giedt on saxes; and Shelton on saxophone, flute and clarinet.

Bumgarner lives in Tuolumne County and feels honored to be a part of the college jazz program.

“Years ago I sat in at a jam session downtown, and they hired me,” he said, referring to Harris and his musician friends. “A junior college doesn’t normally have a program like this. To have this kind of access in a small town to top musicians is amazing.”

Guest musicians will perform individually and in group combinations. Many selections will include the college vocal jazz quartet.

School group performances and daytime workshops are free to the public. Evening concerts require reserved seating. Tickets cost $22 each, and are available at the college bookstore and Mountain Bookshop in Sonora’s Junction Shopping Center.

Concerts will be held in the college theater; doors will open one hour before show time. Friday’s concert will be at 7 p.m. The March 1 concerts are scheduled for 5 and 8 p.m. For more information, call (209) 588-5126 or visit