"In 1968 we reunited Eddie Condon, Wild Bill Davison and Georg Brunis -- they had not played together for 15 years," says Johnson (Fat Cat) McRee, reminiscing about his annual Manassas Jazz Festival, which will celebrate its 20th anniversary this weekend.
"Another year the late Johnny Wiggs had a predominately New Orleans band on stage playing 'Make Me a Pallet on the Floor' and Davison got so carried away with what they were doing he just flat walked on the stage and started playing with them. The whole scene was just incredible."
There have been quite a few of those incredible scenes over the years at the clan's annual gatherings, which McRee bills, accurately, as "America's oldest continuing festival devoted to traditional jazz."
For the Roanoke-raised McRee, traditional means the jazz styles that derive from New Orleans: the New Orleans idiom itself, Chicago Style and the New York variance of both.
Dedicated this year to King Oliver and Jelly Roll Morton, the gathering of about 50 musicians will take place in the Grand Ballroom of the Washington Dulles Ramada Renaissance Hotel, with sessions beginning tomorrow at 8:30 p.m. , Saturday at 1 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. and Sunday afternoon at 3. Call 631-1165 for ticket information.
The festival will pay special tribute to pianist Sammy Price and his 60 years in jazz. Among those scheduled to perform in addition to Price are trumpeters Max Kaminsky and Don Goldie, cornet player Wild Bill Whelan, New Orleans vocalist Banu Gibson and pianist Butch Thompson, who leads the house trio on the American Public Radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." The event will draw drummers Barrett Deems, who toured with Louis Armstrong, 85-year-old Freddie Moore, a veteran of the bands of King Oliver and many others, and Johnny Williams, who played with Sidney Bechet. Two musicians are coming from Sweden, reed player Tomas Ornberg and trumpeter Bent Persson.
Many of those invited to this year's festival have appeared other years, and one, clarinetist Tommy Gwaltney, will have made all 20 annual gatherings after he checks in this weekend.
McRee -- who had been one of the four founder-partners of Blues Alley the year before (Gwaltney was another) -- started the Manassas Jazz Festival in a high school auditorium on a Sunday afternoon in June 1966.
The roster of those who have performed at the annual event since runs to hundreds and contains the names of many jazz greats. Among them are the late Eddie Condon, Vic Dickenson, Bobby Hackett, Claude Hopkins and Cliff Jackson along with the still active Danny Barker, Wild Bill Davison, Marian McPartland and Maxine Sullivan.
Asked if the festival he started two decades ago will be around in, say, the year 2000, he replies: "I may not be here, but after we've gone this long, I don't see any particular reason to stop."