COTA’s successful, unique approach

by Michael Lello - Weekender Editor

To say the organizers of the Celebration of the Arts Jazz Festival — commonly known as COTA — are in a unique situation would be quite an understatement. The annual event, which will take place in Delaware Water Gap for the 33rd time this weekend, has survived despite a decision to eschew outside sponsorship since day one. The festival also has had the luxury of being located in a town teeming with musical talent.

“Everybody has to have some kind of local connection to be on the festival. We don’t go out and look for bands of international notoriety,” said Rick Chamberlain, a COTA cofounder. “We have international notoriety right here.”

Chamberlain’s fellow founder, Delaware Water Gap resident Phil Woods, is a renowned jazz saxophonist who will again perform at COTA this year. Fellow sax standout Dave Liebman, who also lives in the area, is on the bill, too. Both have been named National Endowment of the Arts Jazz Masters — the highest honor bestowed in the United States on jazz musicians. In late August, the New York Times published an article about Liebman.

Chamberlain said paying all the musicians the same amount and avoiding corporate sponsors has helped COTA steer clear of the money-related arguments that he feels derail some festivals.

“It boils down to we don’t have to answer to anybody about what it is we do,” said Chamberlain, who is the principal trombonist with the New York City Ballet Orchestra and a graduate of the New England Conservatory. “We don’t have to put up a logo where they tell us to or do whatever they tell us to do. … And because it was started by the musicians, we all make the same amount of money. It’s just a little honorarium we get every year. It’s not driven by the dollar.”

Woods, who will perform with the COTA Festival Orchestra at 4:30 p.m. Sunday, will also have his new album, “Songs For COTA,” available for purchase It’s a limited-edition CD featuring nine songs from the American songbook performed as a duo with pianist Jesse Green, as well as a new tune, “Keep it Simple,” recorded with violinist Mark Woodyatt. Woods recorded “Songs for COTA” at Red Rock Recording in Saylorsburg, and it will later be released in Europe by Italy-based Philology Records

The proliferation of jazz musicians living in and around the Monroe County village of Delaware Water Gap, near the Pennsylvania-New Jersey border, has helped define the municipality.

“Delaware Water Gap was first on the map as being a resort town, and now it is known all over the world as where they have that little jazz festival,” said Chamberlain. “It has an identity. Being identified as an area of culture is certainly beneficial to any area.”

Chamberlain himself moved from Bucks County in Southeastern Pa. to the Poconos during the heyday of the resorts and their nighttime entertainment.

“That’s a big part of why the musicians are here,” he said. “First of all, it’s a short shot from New York, and for years and years there was a lot of work here for jazz musicians at Mount Airy Lodge, the Tamiment, etc. I came to the Poconos to work at Mount Airy Lodge.”

While artists like Woods and Liebman have been part of the jazz scene for decades, there is a youthful flair to the festival, too. The COTA Cats, a collection of high school jazz players from the area, perform at the event each year. COTA also awards college scholarships to local high school musicians and hosts the COTA camp.

Chamberlain expects about 4,000 attendees at this year’s event. Festival-goers, he said, come from as far away as upstate New York and Western Pa. He added there’s a man that travels to COTA from Toronto each year, and there was an annual attendee from Australia, too.

The event has grown quite a bit to get to that point.

“It’s gotten bigger and better,” Chamberlain said. “We started out with a couple card tables on the street and a patched-together PA. Now we have professional sound and lights. We’re doing things right.”