Young musicians carry the tune of annual Jazz Fest traditions

Hard to say if Delaware Water Gap missed a chance at being the Branson, Mo., of the East some 60 years ago.

What is certain is that when Bob Lehr chose jazz over country-western for his new business venture, the Deer Head Inn became an epicenter of jazz and an incubator for three generations of stellar jazz musicians.

It began with piano players such as Keith Jarrett and was followed for years by the weekly treat of Johnny Coates, whose elegant arrangements and jazz sensibilities drew fans and put the place on the map.

And it was there that tavern owner Ed Joubert, trombonist Rick Chamberlain and sax player Phil Woods concocted the idea for an arts festival called the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts, or COTA. That yearly event is often known simply as "The Jazz Festival," as if it were the only one in the country. For those who play or attend the event, it is.

The 32nd annual Delaware Water Gap COTA festival will be held this weekend in Delaware Water Gap.

 

"I really don't have any distinct first memories of the festival. My parents took me there since I was born, and I haven't missed one. Everything circles around the COTA festival. It's my favorite and the most important thing in my life of music. I remember in 1993, I was over at my grandma's house and we went over to see John Coates at the Deer Head). I was always going over to see him. Then when I heard the Phil Woods Orchestra CD that came out in 1998, I knew I had to play the sax," said Jay Rattman, who explained that he was in fifth grade that year.

His interest in the instrument led to his participation in the COTA Cats, composed of area high school students who get the giddy and sometimes nerve-wracking delight of playing on the same stage as world-class jazz musicians for audiences in the thousands who hang on every note.

Not all the "children of the jazz" went on to play, but many are still inextricably linked to the Gap and the festival. Jason Wilson has deep family ties to the COTA festival. His mother, Nancy Wilson, was a volunteer at the first festivals; his Uncle Martin is curator of the Dutot museum and a talented guitarist in his own right; and his father, Bob Mancuso, is one of the "new" owners of the Deer Head.

"I can remember getting my face painted. I had four different ideas and I remember not liking some of them. I'd wash them off and finally settled on a tiger — that seemed to work for me. I remember being in the theater in the Castle Inn) and playing in the kid's area when Bob Dorough) was playing, and just sitting on the hill hanging with the family," Wilson recalled, laughing.

The Castle Inn burned down in the late '80s, but today's stage is set up next to a set of cement stairs with a mosaic of the name leading to the back-stage area. There, under a large tent littered with instrument cases, musicians sit at tables going over charts while the COTA Cats rehearse before taking the stage.

Jay Rattman's brother, Jonno, brought a friend of his backstage to soak in the music, and a young Davey Lance, whose family is steeped in the musical tradition, was immediately taken. His father, David Lance II, teaches at East Stroudsburg High School South and composes choral arrangements that are critically acclaimed, following the tradition of the eldest primal Lance, who also figured in Davey's memory.

"I must have been in fifth or sixth grade, and I was running around with Jonno Rattman. He knew the area very well and he was working stage crew, so he took me back there and I got to talk with the musicians. My grandpa was back there, too, and Bob Dorough. As the years went on, it became more like family," Davey Lance said recently, days away from leaving for Julliard, the gold standard of music schools.

"I'm off to Julliard in four days, and just getting prepared. It's the most exciting time of my life," he said, explaining that out of all the CDs the school received from hopeful applicants, only four or five were invited to audition, and only one selected.

As exciting as that is, Davey Lance III said that when the weekend after Labor Day comes around, he'll look forward to returning to where it all began, back to Delaware Water Gap and the Deer Head Inn.

"I have a gig at the Deer Head playing with the COTA Cats Alumni on Friday, and I might be sitting in later in the weekend," he said, proving the strong link between the land between the mountains and a long line of excellent musicians.