By Zak Hansen
Las Cruces Bulletin
The Town of Mesilla is no stranger to live music.
Between the numerous festivals scheduled throughout the year and Mesilla Mariachi Sundays, which draw some of the best mariachi groups from around the region each fall, the historic plaza is often alive with the excited cries of mariachi music.
From Friday through Sunday, Oct. 4-6, however, the plaza will play host to a whole new batch of musicians, swapping the mariachi music we all know and love for the blaring brass, pounding drums, squalling saxes and grooving guitar tones of jazz, big band and swing during the 13th annual Mesilla Jazz Happening.
Organized by the Mesilla Valley Jazz and Blues Society, under festival organizer James Helder and founder Bob Burns, and sponsored by the Town of Mesilla, La Posta de Mesilla, Double Eagle, the Las Cruces Bulletin and the Las Cruces Sun-News, the Mesilla Jazz Happening will bring some of the region’s finest acts for three days of great jazz music on the plaza.
According to Burns, “a lot of people love the jazz happening because it’s one of the only non-mariachi musical events in Mesilla.
“The plaza is a great place to do the jazz thing,” he said, “and it brings a much different crowd to the town. It’s always been a lot of fun.”
The historic town center will be the stage for acts including the Mesilla Valley Swing Band, the Chris Oliver 5tet and the Helen Sachs Sextet from 1 to 5 p.m. Saturyday, Oct. 4, and the Derrick Lee Trio, the Mack Goldsbury Quartet and the Mesilla Valley Jazz Orchestra from 2 to 6 p.n. Sunday, Oct. 5.
A new addition to the festival this year, a number of restaurants and bistros around the plaza and Mesilla will host live jazz music on Friday night, making the jazz happening a three-day to-do.
The Double Eagle will hold the “Jazz SupperClub” featuring the Jim Helder Trio. La Posta de Mesilla will have solo jazz guitar from Kerry Alt. The Chain of Fools band will entertain audiences at St. Clair Winery & Bistro. The Bean hosts “Mocha Jazz” with the Just Friends Jazz Quartet. Emilia’s on the Plaza will host “Jazz on the Patio.”
“Bringing in all these restaurants and bistros is a great addition to the festival,” Burns said. “It’s a great way to bring some money to town, and a nice way to take in dinner and a show before the weekend gets going.”
Burns credits festival coordinator Helder, who heads up the Jim Helder Trio, playing Friday at Double Eagle, with bringing Mesilla business owners into the fold. The Double Eagle, for example, will be adorned like the jazz clubs of the 1950s and ’60s, with low lighting and candlelit tables.
“Jerry (Harrell, Double Eagle general manager) was so accommodating and helpful this year,” Helder said, “so people can come in, have dinner or just a few cocktails and listen to the music you would have been hearing in those clubs 60 years ago.
“In going to the business owners, we wanted first and foremost to encourage them to have live music, especially jazz, which is our own national art form. Second, we thought it would be nice to have a real kick-off evening for the Jazz Happening.”
Helder said he feels that jazz, as a uniquely American art form, “is something that should be heard, emphasized and publicized, and with the Mesilla Jazz Happening, we hope to do just that.”
After several years of the jazz happening run by an event planning company, which both Helder and Burns said offered “everything but jazz” – including rock ’n’ roll and country – festival organizers are excited to take it back to its roots.
“When the opportunity to join the efforts of the MVJBS with the annual town festival arose,” Helder said, “we just went with it and tried to turn this thing back into a true jazz festival.”