By KEVIN CHIRI
Slidell news bureau
SLIDELL – As the Jazz on the Bayou fundraiser prepares to celebrate its 25th year of giving back to our community in a very big way, point man piano celebrity Ronnie Kole makes one thing very clear.
“I’m not retiring from anything when it comes to performing,” Kole said.
Yes, the man who brought notoriety to the Jazz on the Bayou fundraiser is making the 25th anniversary of the popular event the time that he and his wife, Gardner, step back from the behind-the-scenes work and pass the torch to other longtime committee members.
But Kole assures those interested in attending the 25th anniversary party that he will still be performing as usual, with some special surprises, when the fundraiser is held on the banks of their Bayou Liberty home on the weekend of March 24 and 25.
Top sponsors this year are Ochsner, Slidell Memorial and First NBC with tickets still available by going online to jazzonthebayou.com. Over 20 restaurants will be on hand to offer some of their best dishes, plus Champagne Beverages provides wine, champagne and other drinks for the party.
Jazz on the Bayou certainly did set itself apart from many fundraising events over the past 25 years.
First and foremost, Jazz raised an incredible amount of money for charity groups when ranked among St. Tammany Parish benefit fundraisers, handing out over $1 million during the past years.
Jazz on the Bayou initially started in 1992 as a way to raise money for the Slidell Symphony Society, but quickly evolved through Gardner and Ronnie’s participation to hand large checks to Easter Seals and STARC, along with many other charity groups among the benefactors.
STARC became a favorite charity due to the work they have done for over 40 years to provide a meaningful life for those in the parish who live with disabilities. STARC started as a daycare to give rest to caregivers, but grew over the years to create real jobs for those living with handicaps. They now assist over 1,000 disabled individuals in the parish, along with their families.
Gardner said it has been the contributions to STARC that especially touched her over the years and made the work with Jazz on the Bayou so important.
“When I think about doing this for 25 years I truly feel honored and happy about what we have done,” Gardner said. “But one of the most important things we have done is to help STARC. For a small organization it is truly incredible to see what they do, and to help them—I consider it a gift for myself.”
Kole made it a personal goal several years ago to raise more and more money for organizations like Easter Seals, STARC, the City of Slidell Cultural Department, the Tammany Trace, Safe Harbor and others. Two years ago he reached a personal goal when he led the group to raise over $100,000 in one year–$116,500 to be exact—which became a part of over $1 million the group has given to charity.
STARC received their biggest check ever that year with $70,000 and Kole chuckled when he remembered the look on the face of Executive Director Dianne Baham when she opened the envelope.
“I can still see it today,” he said with a laugh. “Her eyes got so big. I think she was a little speechless.”
Now the reins for the organization have been turned over to longtime committee members, Elizabeth Schneider and Pam Franklin. Kole said they have done so much with the group for years and didn’t need much direction to become the main leadership in a group that has worked with 100 volunteers for all these years.
“I honestly have always believed that Gardner has been the brains behind this thing growing and having so many great things about it,” he said. “But people like Elizabeth and Pam are an example of the great volunteers, without whom none of this happens. Nobody gets paid in this group—that’s amazing.
“Elizabeth took over the auction and raffle many years ago and has built it to be a great part of the fundraiser—it brings in about a third of the money,” he said.
And this year, Kole said, Schneider and her volunteers have outdone themselves with the auction and raffle items—two aspects of Jazz that have become “almost” as popular as the music at the event on the two afternoons.
At the silent auction table, which will have over 100 items each day, Schneider said they have two fishing charters donated by Tommy Williams and Bubby Lamy, which will be one of many great items to be bid on.
The silent auction also offers incredible sports memorabilia like a Billy Cannon signed football, Joe Namath signed helmet, Drew Brees signed helmet, sports collection cards, art, jewelry, restaurant gift certificates and more.
Up for auction is a weekend in the Warehouse District of New Orleans, and a one-night stay at the Sheraton in the French Quarter.
Another great addition to the Jazz event has been the raffle for a Napa Valley Trip, including air fare and three nights stay. Tickets sell for only $25 each and a maximum of 500 will be sold.
“The Napa Valley trip has become so popular since we started it a few years ago,” Schneider said. “The ones who have won it have always come back and said it was simply a fabulous trip. So we sell a lot of tickets for that and will still be selling them Saturday and Sunday.”
There will be commemorative 25-year wine glasses sold for $10 each, and commemorative cups will also be available.
As she reminisced about 25 years working with Ronnie at the Jazz party, Gardner said she especially enjoyed doing it with her entertainer husband, who always has kept things fun in their marriage.
“To do this with the love of my life, to host Jazz every year, and then to enjoy life with him all these years has been so special. We live and breathe Jazz, so to do this with Ronnie Kole every day has been a delight,” she remarked.
Elizabeth, daughter-in-law to the couple, added “Ronnie and Gardner ARE Jazz on the Bayou.”
Gardner started the event with her late husband, Pete Schneider, and then after becoming a widow and later marrying Ronnie, the talented entertainer with name recognition around the world was quick to offer his celebrity status to promote the fundraiser.
That, he said, is one reason he is not about to quit performing at Jazz, nor anywhere else as he still continues performing locally, in the United States and in countries across the oceans.
“I still love performing and entertaining,” he said. “Truth is, it’s an ego trip. Who doesn’t feel good when they perform for people and they clap and cheer? And with me, as long as I have played, you never know what will come out of my head.”
The Bobby Ohler Band will again perform along with Kole and his group each weekend. A few special surprises are promised at the weekend event in honor of the 25th anniversary.