Houston Jazz Festival The August deaths of bassist Dave Nichols and big-band leader Milt Larkin have cast a sobering pall over an otherwise upbeat and productive summer for Houston's close-knit jazz community. Everyone (fans included), it seems, could use a pick-me-up, and the 17th Annual Houston Jazz Festival may be just what the doctor ordered. As usual, this year's events are focused on celebrating homegrown talent. Thursday's kickoff concert at Midtown Live will feature George Thomas with Phil Blackman. Later, the Kinny Abair Quintet will share the Miller Outdoor Theatre stage with the Joe LoCascio Quintet, the latter featuring saxophone ace David Caceres. Friday is Latin jazz night, with Mark Towns and the Fabulous Jalapenos. The Jalapenos mix and match salsa, merengue, jazz and rock. Saturday, blower extraordinaire Frank Lacy -- whose savvy on trumpet has made him a hot commodity throughout the country -- will perform prior to being honored as Jazz Artist of the Year. Kickoff concert, 5:30 p.m. today at Midtown Live, 3400 Montrose ($5 donation); other shows, 811 p.m. Thursday-Saturday at Miller Outdoor Theatre, 100 Concert Drive, Hermann Park, 626-8000. Free.
Book Talk and Storytelling This Munchkins event is for adults, for parents and teachers who'd like the lowdown on this year's new books and the secrets of storytelling. 7:30 p.m. Munchkins Books for Children, 2530 Times Blvd., 522-3911. Free.
Try out a few new bars The Gay Men's Chorus of Houston invites musical types to "try out a few new bars -- musical bars, that is." The GMCH invites all interested men to come out; no auditions or formal training required. This season's weekly rehearsals begin tonight, 710 p.m. Grace Lutheran Church, at Missouri and Waugh. For more information, call 521-SING.
Swan Lake Should we call this the battle of the ballerinas? Two of the Houston Ballet's new stars, Lauren Anderson and Tiekka Schofield, alternate in the coveted Swan Queen role. Rachel Beard and Barbara Bears, principals who've already had a shot at the demanding Odette/Odile part, will also have their nights in this production. Of course, such competition is of interest only to hard-core balletomanes. For the average fan, it's a wonderful night of Tchaikovsky and romance. Opening tonight, 7:30 p.m. Other performances listed in Thrills, Dance. Wortham Theater Center, Brown Theater, Texas at Smith, 227-ARTS. $10$80.
Itty-bitty Ren Fest Why wait for the rainy season and drive all the way out to Plantersville when you can enjoy ye olde fun at your local HEB Pantry Foods store? Early this evening, a crew of wenches and chain-mail-wearing men will entertain carnival style in Missouri City. 68 p.m. HEB, 4703 Lexington Boulevard, Missouri City, 261-8055. Free.
Fantasy Folk Art: Fun & Magical Mayhem This show of rowdy folk art made by fun-loving Texans includes useful objects, like lamps, as well as paintings and sculptures. Sometimes it's hard to tell where usefulness leaves off and art begins: for instance, Alan Gerson's lamp has a big-mouthed matron as its base. The show opens with a reception, 69 p.m. tonight, and continues through October 20. Heights Pavilion Art Marketplace, 244 West 19th Street, 861-3411.
Listening to the Voices of Vietnam An original dramatic and multimedia work from the earnest students of Clements High School, Voices is based on the individual experiences of people touched by the Vietnam War. 7:30 p.m. today, Saturday and Tuesday, Clements High School Auditorium, 4200 Elkins Road, Sugar Land, 634-2206. $6; $5, seniors and students.
Healthy Ears, Healthy Learning Trot the little pitchers out and have their ear canals examined. Kids get a goodie bag; parents get a little peace of mind and some lessons about ear infections and hearing problems. It's also likely that they'll hear about Cedax (ceftibuten), "a pleasant tasting antibiotic" because this ear-education fair is sponsored by the Cedax people. 10 a.m.2 p.m. Children's World Learning Centers, four locations, including a center in Spring. For more information, call 376-0940. Free.
Highflying pizza planes The Red Baron Stearman Squadron, a fleet of biplanes with frozen pizza sponsorship, and the Canadian Snowbirds, that country's aerobatic demonstration team, will perform in-air feats of derring-do. American military aircraft will be on display, and the audience will thrill to a Tora! Tora! Tora! reenactment and the wingwalking of Teresa Stokes. Bring the kids; bring your dad!8 a.m.6 p.m. Today and tomorrow. Ellington Field, take I-45 South to the Ellington Field/Dixie Farm Road exit, exit right and stay on feeder road until you go under Ellington overpass and then curve up and over the freeway to the airfield entrance, then enter on Challenger 7. For more information, call (800) 4-HOUSTON. $10; $5, children under 12; free, children under six. Coupons available at Diamond Shamrock, Hi/Lo Auto stores and Stop 'n' Go stores.
Houston Women's Festival This daylong celebration of the feminine is put on by the Athena Art Project, a nonprofit devoted to supporting women artists, and such billing might put off good-time gals -- who would want to hang around with a bunch of pouty womyn when you can have fun -- but don't worry. Though this festival has arts and crafts and the obligatory nurturer piffle, it's also got beer and wine, Girls with Guitars, the Cow Pattys (a Texas musical comedy experience) and comedian Nancy Ford. Have a drink, enjoy the entertainment and take a gander at the art show. For women and their friends, rain or shine. 1 p.m.midnight. Garden in the Heights, 3926 Feagan, 868-1910, AthenaArtoAOL.COM. $12.