By Emily Williams
When professional jazz musician Vann Burchfield was contacted by his hometown of Hoover’s only jazz festival to perform five years ago, he was ready to commit. But mother nature had a different plan.
“A tornado hit our home and we lost everything,” Burchfield said. “So, we were busy rebuilding our lives.”
Burchfield has attended the Preserve Jazz Festival, but this is his first year taking the stage.
After a one-year break, the event is returning Sept. 17 and will be held at its original venue, The Preserve. The festival moved for one year to Sloss Furnaces, which yielded a smaller turnout, and then last year was on hiatus.
“It’s a very family oriented atmosphere,” Burchfield said. “We’ll be in a big open field and you’ll see a variety of performers. There’s something for everyone.”
Burchfield’s music lives in smooth jazz. Other performers at the festival will include the Hoover High School First Edition jazz band, a classic New Orleans brass band, solo bass performances and more.
“Music has different places in different times in our lives,” Burchfield said, confessing his appreciation for a wide range of tunes, even mentioning Katy Perry and Taylor Swift.
For younger generations that may not think to explore jazz, Burchfield suggests turning on a song when looking for something relaxing.
“To put on the soft smooth instrumentals of jazz in the background, it doesn’t distract or cause me to listen to both things at once. It provides a nice ambiance,” he said.
He began playing the piano at age six but encountered his first wind instrument at 10, when he took up playing the clarinet in his elementary school band.
“When I picked up a saxophone, everything changed,” he said. “It was like I had just been reacquainted with an old friend.”
To become a successful sax player, Burchfield devoted two hours a day to practicing the instrument and developed an athletic lifestyle to keep up a healthy lung capacity.
Not only is Burchfield a working musician, he holds a Guinness World Record for the longest note held on a wind instrument. To break Kenny G’s record, Burchfield said he had to perform before three Guinness judges and was monitored by a sound device to keep track of his pitch. To be counted as continuous, his pitch could vary by no more than five decibels higher or lower.
He is the last recognized winner in the category because it was dissolved following his triumph.
“All I can do now is best my personal time,” Burchfield said. “My personal best is one hour eight minutes and 22 seconds.”
The bulk of Burchfield’s career has been spent performing gospel music, including years of touring with the Joyce Myers Ministries, which offered him many opportunities to see the world. While playing throughout Japan and the United States, he said, he noticed the emotions on the faces of audience members were much the same.
One of his biggest honors, he said, was being invited to play for former Gov. Bob Riley at the state’s annual Christmas gala. On top of that, he and his wife were given the opportunity to spend the night at the Governor’s Mansion.
The experience could only be topped by his performances at the annual White House Holiday Open House during the presidency of George W. Bush, playing the iconic 9-foot Steinway and Sons piano in the East Room.
He always dabbled in smooth jazz even while on Christian music tours and released two Christmas albums that he describes as “gospel with a smooth jazz flavor,” earning him the moniker “the Christian Kenny G.”
At one of Burchfield’s solo performances, Kenny G emerged from the audience and approached him, complimenting his tone and asking to inspect his saxophone.
“I told him that it wasn’t the horn that’s making the sound, it’s all me,” Burchfield said. “I thought it was so funny that Kenny G wanted to know so much about me.”
But once Kenny G caught wind of Burchfield’s world record and the termination of the longest note category, Burchfield said the cordial relationship was tested.
The next time he had the opportunity to meet Kenny G, the star’s manager told Burchfield to steer clear of any talk of Guinness World Records.
When Burchfield takes the stage at the Preserve Jazz Festival with his fellow band members, guests will hear tunes from his newest album “Let’s Get Started.” When he released his first single from the album, it reached the number one spot on the New York radio station WITD’s Top 25 countdown.
Burchfield will host a free concert to celebrate the album Sept. 15 at Perfect Note in Hoover starting at 7 p.m.
The Preserve Jazz Festival will open to guests at 11 a.m. and performances will begin at 1 p.m. Guests are invited to bring along small coolers, food and drink. Tickets are $38 and children ages 10 and under enter for free. Proceeds from the event benefit Samford’s the Rev. John T. Porter Minority Scholarship, as well as the university’s radio station, WVSU-FM, which is the only station in the Birmingham area dedicated to smooth jazz.
For more information, visit preservejazz.com.