RIVIERA BEACH – Fans saw award-winning jazz performer Will Downing saunter onto a stage for the first time in two years last week at the Riviera Beach Music Festival.
The scene was moving as Downing smiled, and slowly but steadily made his way center stage in a sharp white suit, every step tempered slightly by the wooden cane at his side.
But the expression on his face was one that said he was just happy to be there. Downing was diagnosed with a debilitating muscle disorder called polymyositis two years ago.
And yet, on the night of April 11, he was back in his element, crooning a cover of his old single, “Stop, Look and Listen” to a crowd of fans at the festival.
“I can’t explain it,” Downing said afterwards backstage in an interview with the South Florida Times. “There are no words to describe how I felt. There was so much going through my mind, it was fantastic to be out there again.”
Najee, a well-known jazz musician who has performed at the event in past years, invited Downing to attend the festival.
Later in the evening, Riviera Beach Mayor Thomas Masters came out to honor Downing’s contribution to the music world.
“I wish I could take credit for this,” Najee said in his tour bus following the concert. “But the idea of honoring Will was really the city of Riviera Beach’s.”
Other invited performers included Jeff Lorber, who performed in a duet with Najee on the Jazz clarinet; while Incognito’s former front woman Maysa tore it up. Her deep, sultry voice echoed off condominiums on the city’s Singer Island.
This year’s music festival was a far cry from past years, where lack of organization and funds led to organizational mishaps.
In other years, shows planned for the afternoon often didn’t begin until the evening, if at all. Delays irked celebrities and stages collapsed.
But this year, it seems, the city’s work paid off.
The city invested money and time into renting a stage as well as hiring a production company called Pin Drop Management to keep things in order.
Their goal this year was to break even, according to The Palm Beach Post. The city budgeted $723,050 and raised $200,000 from sponsors for the festival, an increase over last year’s $610,223.
Debbie Blew, 49, an administrative assistant with the city of Riviera Beach who is also a city resident, has worked the festival every year since it began in 2001.
“It changes every year,” Blew said working one of the tents at the festival entrance. “And, I think every year it’s gotten better, I do think the lineup was better this year and drew more people.”
The night also brought together something new to the festival and the area: an increase in diversity on all fronts, according to city spokeswoman Roseanne Brown.
“We’re just happy about the variety of music,” Brown said. “And looking at the audience, we’ve done a better job of getting the word out not only to Riviera Beach, but along the Southeast region.”
Vendors lined the street of the Ocean mall on the island, selling patrons fried catfish, sweet strawberry lemonade and T-shirts to their heart’s desire.
And for once, the weather behaved itself, bringing a beautiful sunset with a light breeze to carry the sounds of jazz saxophones and Tommy Davidson’s comedic relief.
Davidson, former star of the TV show In Living Color, hosted the night and introduced every act by name, including a little freestyle towards the end with
Najee and special guest Emmanuel Lewis from the TV show Webster.
“That’s Najee, in case you didn’t know,” said the former child actor, dancing and breaking it down along with the rest.
Miami Gardens residents Frank Covin, 63, and Terro Ferguson, 54, came up to enjoy the music, the feel of the evening and, of course, to sit on lawn chairs near the beach and nurse a couple of drinks.
“We drove 60 minutes to get here on I-95,” Covin said. “It’s jazz, though so it’s a very different crowd, the feel is very calm, but much more diverse. We all enjoy the music.”
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Najee