Cheryl Fisher’s ‘crazy idea’ becomes an acclaimed career

Dance hall music from her Sylvan Lake childhood prompted Cheryl Fisher to come up with a "crazy idea" back in 2003.

Dance hall music from her Sylvan Lake childhood prompted Cheryl Fisher to come up with a “crazy idea” back in 2003.

The acclaimed jazz singer, who grew up in Edmonton, recalled visiting her grandfather in Sylvan Lake as a child, and being enchanted by the music she heard drifting from the now defunct Varsity Hall dance club.

Music and water seemed a natural fit, added Fisher, who began forming a mental picture of jazz musicians playing beside the sparkly lake. “There was something very attractive about the idea.”

Along with her saxophone and clarinet playing husband, Eric Allison, Fisher decided to do a bit of arm twisting and calling in of favours from musician friends — and thus Jazz at the Lake was born.

The couple, who now live in Sylvan Lake, purposely started small. On the first day of their very first festival, they joined up with seven musicians to perform swing dance music from the ’40s for a small crowd of locals. The next day, a small Dixieland band strolled through town, which seemed to go over well with town residents and businesses.

It was all very quaint and enjoyable, said Fisher, who never expected Jazz at the Lake to grow into the huge success it’s since become.

But every year, the event “snowballed into a bigger and better festival,” said Allison. “It took on a life of its own.”

Jazz at the Lake has since featured musical luminaries such as Oliver Jones, Tommy Banks, P.J. Perry, Michael Kaeshammer, Emilie-Claire Barlow, and drawn appreciative audiences from across Alberta and beyond.

Allison estimates that about 60 per cent of the festival crowd still comes from Sylvan Lake and Red Deer, while 20 per cent comes from the rest of Central Alberta, and another 20 per cent is from Edmonton, Calgary and even as far as Saskatchewan and British Columbia.

He added that some of the out-of-province fans have timed their visits to see their Central Alberta relatives to correspond with the jazz festival. “Some people from Saskatchewan have told us, ‘This is the fourth year we’re here.'”

Now in its 10th year, the festival is marking the occasion by spreading out into 10 different venues around Sylvan Lake from Aug. 16 to 19.

Not only will the 2012 event mark the return of Kaeshammer, but Tommy Banks is also coming back as part of the Alberta Jazz All-Stars, which also features Fisher, Allison and John Stowell. Some of the performers at other festival venues are Tim Tamashiro. Johnny Summers, Donald Ray Johnson, and The Polyjesters.

The festival’s founders believe Jazz at the Lake has become popular even with people who aren’t huge jazz aficionados because they recognize it’s rare for a community of 12,000 people to attract such “heavy hitters” from the music world.

“That’s the cool thing about this festival,” said Fisher. “Being able to hear this calibre of music is a rare thing and people want to be part of it . . . Usually these kind of performers play stadiums, so seeing them in small venues in quite magical.”

Allison believes participating artists have also come to see Jazz at the Lake as a special and unique event. “We get the artists for limited prices because they know there’s limited seating.”

The couple, along with festival manager Kathy Bradshaw and her team of 40 volunteers, have done a lot of things right over the years — including partnering with local businesses and sponsors.

“It’s all about community spirit and wanting to be part of an event that’s getting a name and drawing people to Sylvan Lake. People are taking pride in the quality of the festival,” said Allison.

Organizers also never underestimate the potential for weather-related disasters. Allison noted that all outdoor jazz events also have indoor, “Plan B” sites, in case of rain or hail. “We learned that the hard way,” he added, remembering how the strolling Dixieland band had to quickly dodge into various businesses when the skies opened during the second year of the festival.

“That afternoon was the most miserable, cold, rainy day,” he said.

“But really, we’ve had such great weather,” added Fisher. “We’ve been very lucky.”

Fisher and Allison will perform as part of the Jazz All-Stars, with the Tommy Banks Trio, John Stowell and special guests, from 8 p.m. Friday, Aug. 17, at the Alliance Community Church in Sylvan Lake, 4404-47th Ave. Tickets are $35.

For more schedule, performance and ticket information for various festival events, please go to Tickets are also available from the Sylvan Lake Tourist Information, 4719-50th Ave. Call toll free: 1-866-887-5550.

About Jazz at the Lake’s founders and regular performers

Cheryl Fisher is one of Central Alberta’s hidden treasures. Although she’s crooned to great acclaim at various big-city venues, (Montreal’s International Jazz Festival billed her as one of the greatest female jazz singers in Canadian history), Fisher rarely performs locally — the exception being at Jazz at the Lake.

This summer area residents can hear Fisher sing along with the festival’s Alberta Jazz All-Stars band that also includes her musician husband, Eric Allison, as well as Tommy Banks and John Stowell.

Fisher grew up as the fifth of six children in a musically attuned family in Edmonton and later Victoria. She considered herself a “Motown girl,” before becoming a record store manager as a teenager and discovering George Benson’s White Rabbit and the glory of jazz.

Although Fisher studied education in college, she also began working on her voice by performing at local gigs. She began thinking of her voice as an instrument that could go beyond delivering song lyrics.

“I don’t like things that are fixed and repetitious. Jazz encourages the free movement of your interpretation and improvisation on any song on any given day,” said Fisher, who got her Masters degree in jazz vocals from the University of Miami.

It was there that she met Allison, a working jazz musician who was teaching temporarily at the university to cover another instructor’s leave. In Allison, Fisher found her life partner and greatest supporter.

The Indiana native said of his wife, “I wanted to help her get her music out to a wider audience, because I think her talent is so supreme . . . Cheryl has the ability to touch an audience more than hardly anyone I’ve ever seen perform. It’s a gift.”

Fisher has since performed with P.J. Perry, Banks, Bob Erlandson and studied in Paris, where she also performed with pianist Olivier Caillard.

Over the past decade she’s created five recordings that have cemented her international reputation. Fisher’s latest release, Moments Like This, show her to be a subtle improvisor who embraces scat and has “a knack for perfectly placed notes.”

Eric Allison admits he didn’t think much of his father’s Count Basie and Stan Kenton records while he was growing up in South Bend, Ind. But sometime while attending junior high school in Sarasota, Fla., Allison “got hit by the jazz virus, never to be cured.”

Soon Allison was buying Louis Armstrong albums himself, as well as early jazz recordings by clarinetist Irving Fazola and tenor saxophonist Eddie Miller. “I wanted to know where jazz came from,” he said.

That curiosity has never left Allison, a Charlie Parker devotee, who interprets mainstream jazz, bebop, funk, New Orleans second line, swing and Dixieland on his saxophone, flute and clarinet.

After graduating from Northwestern University near Chicago with a Bachelor’s degree in music education, Allison earned a Master’s degree in jazz pedagogy at the University of Miami.

But performing was his first love.

“I was actually working steadily all the time, six days a week, seven hours a night,” said Allison who was known at live music clubs throughout south Florida through his permanent stint with the popular Billy Marcus Quartet.

He went on to record the albums Mean Street Beat and After Hours, and perform with a litany of jazz greats, including Zoot Sims, Ira Sullivan, Paquito d’Rivera, Richie Cole, Scott Hamilton, Eddie “Clearhead” Vinson, and Buddy Tate.

Allison also became a band leader, who arranges for other artists.

The musician, who relocated to Sylvan Lake after marrying Alberta jazz singer Sharon Fisher in 2000, has since become known on both sides of the border.

He’s performed at the Blue Note club in New York City, as well as Toronto’s Montreal Bistro, at the Jacksonville, Indianapolis, Montreal, Edmonton and Calgary jazz festivals. Allison has also played a pops concert with the Florida Philharmonic, toured Japan and Korea, and continues to be music director of the Gold Coast Jazz Society Band.

His 30 years as a working pro in Florida’s jazz scene was recently recognized with Allison’s induction into the South Florida Jazz Hall of Fame, along with other members of the Billy Marcus Quartet.

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