The collective brings its “jazz offensive” show back despite last year's censorship debacle

“The ChickenHawk BirdGetters are the most controversial and dangerous jazz act in Columbus since well, ever. But we won't start a riot. We promise.”

That is the description for CHBG on the ComFest website; the jazz collective will play the festival on Friday, June 22. It's a tongue-in-cheek reference to the band's 2017 appearance, but the circumstances were serious. Concerned the band would “incite a riot,” ComFest staff censored its performance, igniting a public outcry.

Specializing in improvisation, CHBG had merely discussed playing N.W.A.'s “Fuck tha Police.” A “concerned citizen” caught wind and alerted the police, who, in turn, informed ComFest. Although CHBG insisted it had no plans to use the song to prompt a demonstration, ComFest Entertainment Committee Head Darryl Mendelson forbade the band to perform the song.

“I was angry,” said Spira (aka Dr. N. Michael Goecke), who plays trombone and other instruments for CHBG. “I felt hurt and I felt betrayed by an organization and an event that I've been a part of for almost 15 years.”

“It was weird,” added drummer Jahrie Smith, who has been attending the festival since he was a child. “It was unlike any ComFest experience I'd ever had before.”

Mendelson later apologized in a public statement. “ComFest has and will continue to support artists and their First Amendment rights,” he wrote. “This was a bad call — we will learn from it and do better.”

“He reached out to us all individually to offer his apologies, and I think they were sincere,” percussionist Joey Gurwin said. “We didn't want revenge and we didn't want anybody thrown under the bus. We were glad that there was an understanding.”

CHBG members cite the apology, their longtime relationship with ComFest and the festival's importance as reasons they will return to the I Wish You Jazz stage this year. (ComFest did not immediately respond to Alive's request for comment.)

While there isn't any lingering animosity, there is still the unsolved mystery of the anonymous person who tipped off the police.

“My question was: How did anybody find out about it? Because it was a closed [Facebook] group,” Smith said. And they've ruled out anyone in the band sharing the information.

“Not even possible,” Smith said. “We're not those dudes.”

Fortunately, the band thrives on mystery when it comes to its music, preferring to capture “snapshots in time” onstage, according to Gurwin.

“We draw on the things that we're feeling right then and right there,” he said.

But the intent is always to provoke a feeling (not violent action), in keeping with the band's “jazz offensive” approach.

“For a long period of time, jazz music, specifically, has been very safe. … It's something that has, unfortunately, been relegated to background music at wine and cheese parties,” Gurwin said. “Jazz music was, at one time, the gangster rap of its day. … If we can create instrumental, improvised music that needs a parental advisory, then we [know] our set has been successful.”