Gary Linehan, The Union Democrat

The Columbia College Jazz Artist Series will present its 34th annual Vocal Jazz Festival on Friday and Saturday in the Dogwood Theater on campus.

Nearly 20 Northern California school groups - including Summerville High School in Tuolumne - will take part in performances and workshops from noon until 5 p.m. each day. These events are free and open to the public.

Concerts with professional guest artists also will be presented each evening for $20.

This year the festival will be attended by vocal jazz students from Corte Madera and Sinaloa middle schools in the Bay Area; Soquel, Folsom, Natomas, Kingsburg, Merced, Santa Susana, Harbor and Summerville high schools, and college groups from Cabrillo, Sierra, West Valley, Contra Costa and Cal State Sacramento.

The school groups will have sessions with top jazz educators including Kerry Marsh of Cal State Sacramento, Jan DeShera of Diablo Valley College, Curtis Gaesser of Folsom High School and Angie Doctor of the professional group the Bobs, as well as with the evening headliners.

Two new headliners join the festival this year - Los Angeles recording artist Sweet Baby J'ai and Bay Area recording artist Kenny Washington. They will present workshops during the day and perform in evening concerts at 7 p.m. Friday and 5 p.m. Saturday.

The stars will be backed by the college's vocal jazz quartet - Sheryl Max, Andrea Hayes, Joel Acker and Caroline Walsh - and an all-star band including another new guest artist, pianist Walter Bankovitch, in addition to Keith Evans on guitar, Clint Day on bass, David Hawkes on drums, Mike Miller on timbales, Mario Flores on congas, Gordon Giedt on saxophones, Kenny Karst on trombone and Marvin McFadden of Huey Lewis and the News on trumpet.

Among the songs to be performed are "At Last," "What a Difference a Day Makes," "I Could Write a Book" and "The Very Thought of You."

Born and raised in New Orleans, Kenny Washington grew up singing gospel in church and playing saxophone in school bands. Jazz caught his interest during his senior year of high school and he went on to study music at Xavier University, playing saxophone and singing in a variety of styles including pop, classical, R&B and jazz.

After college Washington joined the honorary U.S. Navy Band, performing across Asia, Russia, Australia and the United States.

This February, Washington appeared at Jazz At Lincoln Center with Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra to perform Marsalis' epic oratorio "Blood On The Fields."

Washington now lives in Oakland and has appeared at clubs and festivals throughout the San Francisco Bay Area and across the country.

Sweet Baby J'ai has toured the world with her distinctive sound, encompassing styles from soul, R&B, folk, jazz, blues, pop and spoken word, even fronting the occasional orchestra. Washboard and spoons are also part of her act.

J'ai Michel was first called Sweet Baby by her mother, and the name stuck. She grew up in Kansas City, home to legends like Charlie "Bird" Parker, Count Basie and Big Joe Turner.

At only 5 years old, she was already writing songs and by the age of 8, was sneaking in the backdoors of clubs on 18th & Vine to watch her father play with top jazz musicians.

By age 10 she had started classical piano studies and by 12 had switched to violin.

For many years she worked with pianist Nate Morgan and the late greats, guitarist Ronald Muldrow and drummer Sherman Ferguson, where she learned to improvise, back phrase, weave in and out of melodies and stay the course with the groove.

Reserved seat tickets for the evening concerts are $20, available at Mountain Bookshop in The Junction shopping center and at the college's Manzanita Bookstore, by phone at 588-5126, until Friday at 1 p.m.

Remaining seats will be available at the door.