tom-joyner_web.jpgMIAMI GARDENS — This city hosts what has quickly become one of the hottest musical festivals in the country. In its fourth year of existence, Jazz in the Gardens boasts a lineup that includes some of the nation’s most endearing “old school” R&B artists.

This year’s rapid ticket sales could be attributed to any of the popular acts appearing in the show, among them Erykah Badu, Common and Anthony Hamilton.  All VIP and premium tickets are
gone; only general admission tickets remain.

Tom Joyner, host of The Tom Joyner Morning Show, will host the event.

Yet fans of “Maze featuring Frankie Beverly” will likely inform you that the tickets are flying out the door because of that group’s inclusion in the festival, which happens on Saturday, March 28 and Sunday, March 29 at Dolphin Stadium.

“Maze featuring Frankie Beverly,” which will perform on March 29, has become legendary for its sold-out concerts, a fact made more amazing (pun intended) because the group has not produced new music in nearly 15 years. 

New music or not, fans fortunate enough to experience a live show are likely to leave exhausted because sitting down at a Maze concert is unacceptable,  even during ballads.  And because of the deep connection that fans have to timeless hits such as "Joy and Pain," "Happy Feelings," and "Before I Let Go," singing along is not only inevitable, it is strongly encouraged.

Maze fans will be delighted to know that the group is in the studio recording a new CD that will be released by the end of the year.  Because of his intense focus during the songwriting and recording process, front man Beverly was unavailable for an interview.  Roame, one of the group’s original members, spoke to the South Florida Times from his home in Los Angeles about the group’s soulful journey – from its early days of playing clubs around Philadelphia to its devoted fan following.

Roame, who sings background and plays the conga, said the group was discovered by the late Marvin Gaye in the mid 1970s after Gaye’s sister-in-law heard the band play at a San Francisco nightclub.

Originally from Philadelphia, the band left for northern California after establishing a “great following” in Philly.  After changing the name of the group from The Butlers, to Raw Soul, to Maze and becoming “one of the hottest bands around,” Roame said when Gaye came to check them out that, “we blew Marvin away.”

Gaye introduced them to a representative at Capitol Records, who promptly signed them. Their first album, Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, was released in 1976 and its hits are still in rotation on radio stations and concert venues around the country.

So supportive was Gaye of the group that he paid their rent for a while, Roame said, adding, “He wanted us to be his band, but we had other plans for ourselves.”

Their plans have included 12 albums over the last 40 or so years and performing at sold-out shows for eight or nine months each year.  The group recorded a live CD last year.

Roame said the group is incredibly grateful to its fans for the love and support.  The live shows are as much a treat for them, he said, as they are for the fans.

“Everybody’s up from beginning to the end.  It’s such a fantastic feeling to see the warmth and love, people with tears in their eyes,” he said.

SMOOTH JAZZ LEGEND

The smooth-voiced singing sensation known as Will Downing (not the one and only, he corrects, since he shares the name with his son, Will Downing Jr.) is grateful for his gift. The man who comes from a family of educators, but “always had an interest in music,” can’t imagine doing anything else.

“This is all I’ve ever done,” he told the South Florida Times during a telephone interview.

Downing, 45, started out as a background singer behind many artists, among them his friend South African singer and guitarist Jonathan Butler (who is also performing at Jazz in the Gardens), ‘80s greats Stephanie Mills and Jennifer Holiday, and the boss himself, Bruce Springsteen.

“My solo career did not come into focus until 1987,” said Downing, whose 14th solo project will be released on June 16. Downing’s most recent releases are the CD’s Come Together as One and A Dream Fulfilled (both released in 2008) and After Tonight, released in 2007.

A regular among the country’s smooth jazz radio stations’ play lists, Downing said a rare illness in 2006 served as a “wake-up call” that helped him to adapt a new appreciation for life.  In the latter part of that year, Downing said he inexplicably began feeling “weaker and weaker.”

After being diagnosed with Polymysitis, a muscle disorder similar to Lou Gehrig’s disease, Downing was virtually paralyzed from the chest down. Thankfully, he began to recover in 2008 and is now “about 85 percent back.”

“When you’re younger, you think nothing’s ever going to happen to you,” said the husband and father of three.

The illness made him reassess his priorities. 

“Maybe I’m focusing on the wrong things,” Downing told himself. “I was so busy chasing the dollar.”

Calling the illness a blessing in disguise that was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to him, Downing said he’s now “a lot more well-rounded.”

While music is still incredibly important to him, he said, “I don’t put all of my focus on being an artist. I spend a lot more time with my kids.’’

Of his Jazz in the Gardens’ colleagues, Downing said that because they are all “immensely talented,” he has to “bring his ‘A’ game.”

He added, “I’m looking forward to seeing all of them.”

When asked to identify which artists among the “younger” set impress him, Downing mentioned Ledisi, Ne-Yo, Jaheim and Chrisette Michele.

Downing said the Jazz in the Gardens’ audience can expect a great show.

“I’m going to give them my best,” he said.

RMHarris15@Bellsouth.net

Photo: Tom Joyner



IF YOU GO

WHAT:  Jazz in the Gardens

WHEN: March 28 and 29 Gates open at 3p.m. each day; show begins at 4 p.m.

  March 28: Anthony Hamilton, Common, Erykah Badu, Will Downing, Roy Ayers.

  March 29: Maze featuring Frankie Beverly, Kenneth “Babyface’’ Edmonds, Kenny G., Angelique Kidjo, Jonathan Butler.

WHERE: Dolphins Stadium, 2269 Dan Marino Blvd., Miami Gardens.

COST: Ticket prices begin at $30 per day.

CONTACT: 305-622-8043 or www.jazzinthegardens.com.