Russ Jennings has a personal vision for today's Fourth of July celebration at Jack London Square. As producer of the day's entertainment, "after the bands are all packed up and the fireworks are going off overhead," Jennings says, "I stand in the middle of the empty stage, look up, and say, 'I love my job!' "The Oaklander, whose life has always been connected to music, is one of the area's busiest concert producers. The public may not know Jennings, but he is responsible for many of the area's free outdoor concerts, including street fairs and the Oakland City Center series.
July Fourth is the biggie, when an array of culturally diverse local bands, with the proper patriotic touches in between, keep the growing crowds happy during the nine hours until the fireworks fill the sky above the Oakland Estuary.
In addition to clowns, jugglers, and an Uncle Sam on stilts mingling with the throng, Jennings oversees two stages of attractions such as Emmit Powell's Gospel Elites, the women-led Latin jazz band Happy Turtle, Quicksilver (featuring the '60s rock band's founders Gary Duncan and David Freiberg), plus various soul and blues bands. "But I had nothing to do with the dog act," says Jennings with a twinkle in his eye, referring to the day's opener, the Disc Dog Extreme Demo Team, which kicks off the day at 12:30 p.m.
Everything builds to the pyrotechnics: the US Air Force's big swing band, Airmen of Note, on stage one; and members of Oakland's Opera Piccola in Revolutionary War garb leading the crowd in a patriotic sing-along on stage two.
"I love outdoor events where our community gets together," Jennings says. He began his involvement with Jack London Square producing a free Thursday night concert series that was eventually axed after the Jack London Cinema opened. "The Fourth of July became a big event in 1993 as the port's way to bring people to Jack London Square," he recalls, adjusting the ever-present fedora atop his shaved head.
Jennings was assistant music director at Berkeley radio station KPFA-FM, where he now displays his ear for new and undiscovered talent on the first Sunday of each month on Robbie Osman's "Across the Great Divide" show. "I started producing concerts as a way to supplement my income," Jennings explains, referring to his RJP (Russ Jennings Productions) company.
Far from relaxing when the Glorious Fourth ends, Jennings stage-manages the San Francisco World Music Festival, is technical director for the Oakland East Bay Symphony, and serves as equipment manager for the Jazz Camp Weekend at Mills College. Other gigs include San Francisco's Fillmore and Union Street fairs, the San Anselmo and Marin arts fairs, two weekly downtown Oakland free outdoor concert series (City Center and Kaiser Building roof garden), and Alameda's Crab Cove series, which features the West African Highlife Band on July 13. Even without the fireworks, Jennings works full-time to keep the East Bay's outdoors lively.
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