By John Ernesto
Last July, Suzie and I sadly said good bye to our dear friend Chuck Loeb.
Along with Gary Spencer, John Graff, Stan and Janet Danner, the Berks Jazz Fest contingent traveled to Dobbs-Ferry along the Hudson River in upstate New York to attend Chuck’s transition service.
Chuck passed away last Monday, July 31, after quietly and courageously battling cancer for two years.
Although we anticipated the news of Chuck’s passing, the reality that he was gone was devastating and heartbreaking.
It was an emotional and sad time. But our spirits were lifted when social media exploded with an outpouring of love and appreciation for Chuck as a person and a musician.
Those spirits were uplifted even higher during Friday’s service as person after person spoke and reminded us that Chuck was simply a wonderful human being.
Family, childhood friends, and musical friends spoke of Chuck’s love of his family – wife Carmen, daughters Christina, and Lizzy — his incredible musicianship, his fun-loving, friendly personality, his humility, his kindness, his generosity, his class, and so much more.
Although unfairly cut short at 61, it was a life well lived.
I was blessed and honored to experience those qualities first hand.
Chuck entered my life in 1999 when he made his first appearance at the Berks Jazz Fest. His debut as an opening act was anything but normal.
The headlining artist, who will remain nameless, arrived at the Philly airport ahead of schedule on show day. Instead of waiting for his fest pickup, he decided to rent a car and find his way to Reading in this pre-GPS, cellphone era. Not surprisingly, he got lost in the Amish countryside and was going to arrive late.
When Chuck was nearing the end of his set, we gave him the “stretch” signal. He simply nodded, smiled and kept playing for the appreciative fans until the headliner finally showed up.
Following the unexpected extended show, we thanked Chuck for improvising and saving the day. He never asked for anything in return. When offered, he refused.
From that day, Chuck headlined shows at the Berks Jazz Fest every year. And, most important, our friendship was off and running.
Each year, Chuck and I would brainstorm new ideas for each upcoming fest, hoping to create unique concerts that would be presented only at the Berks Jazz Fest.
I so looked forward to those creative conversations.
Chuck was a consummate musician, guitarist, arranger and composer. His musical creativity messed with my desire and vision to take the fest to another level.
Chuck opened my mind to a different way of presenting/programming the fest. He taught me how to produce special concerts to present to our loyal fans.
It has been an amazing musical journey.
Since 1999, Chuck has been part of nearly 40 performances at the Berks Jazz Fest – many were those unique concert productions.
Randy Brecker, Dave Samuels and Chuck
The East Coast All-Stars featuring Chuck, Randy Brecker, Kim Waters, Alex Bugnon, Will Lee, Omar Hakim, Ralph MacDonald, Mike Ricchiuti, Bill Evans and Patti Austin.
Rick Braun & Chuck Loeb with Carmen Cuesta
Chuck Loeb & The WJJZ All-Stars featuring Jeff Kashiwa, Kim Waters, Steve Cole, and The Berks Horns.
Chuck Loeb & Friends featuring Eric Marienthal, Tom Scott, Will Lee, Carmen Cuesta, Lizzy Loeb, Rob Munsey, Café, Cliff Almond, Matt King
Chuck Loeb & Friends featuring Phil Perry, Everette Harp, Bobby Lyle, Andy Snitzer, Carmen Cuesta
Jazz in’ Up the Pops with the Reading Pops Orchestra that featured Chuck, David Benoit, Brian Bromberg, Eric Marienthal, and the 55-member Pops.
Chuck’s other fest performances included several with his Fourplay mates Bob James, Nathan East, and Harvey Mason; Jazz, Funk Soul with Jeff Lorber and Everette Harp; Metro with Mitch Forman, Dave Weckl, Randy Brecker, Gerald Veasley, Bob Franceschini; Guitarzz with Chieli Minucci and Paul Jackson Jr.; and several projects produced by Jason Miles.
In 2011, Chuck and I came up with the Berks Bop concept to counter the so-called “Jazz Police” who openly questioned the chops of contemporary artists, which did not sit well with me.
So, we invited Rick Braun, Randy Brecker, Brian Bromberg, Gerald Albright, Ada Rovati, and Philippe Saisse to perform an evening of bop music in the Jazz Base.
It was a big hit. Berks Bop Night, with Chuck as musical director, became a fest fixture, including a big band version to celebrate the fest’s 25th anniversary in 2015. Berks Bop also led to the CD – “BOP” – co-produced by Chuck and Jeff Lorber.
Chuck also was musical director of the annual Berks All-Star Jam, turning it from a loose jam session into a well-produced concert without losing any of its improvisation characteristic.
Another unique fest project was Chuck Loeb’s String Training, an educational opportunity for guitarists of all ages that included guest instructors Pat Martino, Frank Vignola, Vinny Rainolo and Chieli Minucci. There is a classic photo of Chuck on stage with 80 guitarists who participated.
Last April, Chuck’s final Berks appearance featured Lionel Cordew, David Mann, Ron Jenkins, Charles Blenzig, Bobby Lyle and The Berks Horns. It also was Chuck’s final live performance.
As you can see, Chuck was the driving force behind so many memorable moments at the Berks Jazz Fest.
For me, however, the most memorable came in 2006 when we presented the Tribute to Wes Montgomery featuring fellow guitarists Pat Martino, Larry Carlton, Earl Klugh, Russell Malone, Paul Jackson Jr., Jimmy Bruno, with Will Lee on bass, Matt King on piano, and Wolfgang Haffner on drums.
To say the least, it was a challenge getting the artists schedules aligned so they could be part of the show. Somehow, we did.
Just before the fest, we got word that Wes Montgomery’s son, John, was traveling from Indianapolis to attend the concert.
All the artists were fully invested into the project. All egos were checked at the door. The backstage vibe was electric – and that followed the guitarists on stage and triggered musical fireworks.
Chuck produced a magical night of music as the ensemble joyfully performed Wes classics such as “Four on Six”; “Groove Yard;” “Bumpin’ On Sunset;” “Unit Seven;” “Full House;” “Road” Song;” and more.
After the concert, Chuck was beaming. The other artists were beaming. Everyone was beaming.
As we embraced, I thanked Chuck for his incredible efforts that made the concert a big success.
He replied: “No, thank you John. You and the Berks Jazz Fest team made it happen. It would not have been possible any place other than the Berks Jazz Fest.”
Chuck then handed me the music book with the charts and arrangements for the Wes show. It was autographed by all the artists.
It was a thoughtful and meaningful gift that has a special place in my music room.
I am eternally thankful that Chuck was part of my life and will cherish our personal and musical friendship forever.
Chuck may be gone – but he will never be forgotten by his extended Berks Jazz Fest family of volunteers and fans.
When the fest family gathers each spring in Reading, we will remember and celebrate Chuck’s life.
His musical spirit always will be with us.