For the past 35 years, Cuyahoga Community College has curated world-class performances during JazzFest, and this year organizers are pulling out all the stops, making some incredible shifts in programming to bring it home as they make the event more about Cleveland.
Last November, Tri-C announced the move of the festival from April to June. In the past, JazzFest spanned a 10-day period in the middle of April that proved a bit much for audiences and out-of-towners. This year, you have your pick of more than 30 concerts and events packed into three days, June 26 to 28, at Playhouse Square. The move results in more performers playing the festival during their summer tour season, as well as wider availability of venues at Playhouse Square.
"When you have a weekend where a person from Toledo or Pittsburgh or Detroit can come here and immerse themselves in some great music, then you make it more of a destination point, and it feels like more of a Cleveland event being in one area and being downtown," says festival director Terri Pontremoli.
But a shorter festival doesn't mean fewer headline performances. JazzFest is taking over the Ohio, Palace and Hanna theaters in Playhouse Square to bring a huge line-up of some of the best jazz acts in the country, including the Sean Jones Quartet, Dave Holland Prism with Kevin Eubanks, blind singer-songwriter-guitarist Raul Midón, percussionist Terri Lyne Carrington and John Scofield, just to name a few. To ensure you get to hear all of this great music, JazzFest is selling an All-Festival Pass for the first time. The pass is $270 and gets you preferred seating to nine concerts as well as admission to available seating at other shows. And, of course, individual tickets are available at varying prices.
If you're trying to check out the festival on a budget, this year JazzFest is adding free shows at the U.S. Bank Plaza under the outdoor chandelier in Playhouse Square. Pontremoli says they'll use this venue to feature "local and regional musicians, and it's all free, courtesy of the Cleveland Foundation, so that's another 13 concerts added to our schedule."
Outdoor shows run from 3 p.m. to midnight on Friday and Saturday, when there'll be plenty of food and drinks available. You can check out local acts like the Latin jazz group Sammy DeLeon y su Orquesta, Wesley Bright & the Hi-Lites, Red Light Roxy and many more. There even will be a large dance floor next to the stage that will feature salsa dancing and local swing-dance organization Get Hep Swing. Check the Tri-C JazzFest and Playhouse Square websites for the full schedule.
JazzFest is more than just an annual festival; organizers keep busy with concerts, lectures and pop-up shows throughout the year. This year they've revived their artist in residency program, bringing in virtuoso bassist and composer Christian McBride to perform and work with students at community outreach events. JazzFest's opening concert features McBride on bass; he'll play with the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra and Sean Jones Quartet. The bassist will also conduct a live radio and web broadcast on WCPN at 2 p.m. on Saturday that will feature interviews and performances by guitarist John Scofield, singer Gregory Porter and pianist Eddie Palmieri. McBride has been working with students at the JazzFest Summer Camp that culminates with a concert at the festival, and he worked with high-school players in April during the Education Days DownBeat Invitational.
Clearly, one of JazzFest's goals is to nurture the future of the genre. As Pontremoli puts it, "We do know that there is a young audience that is very interested in [jazz], and when they hear any music that is played at a high level, they dig it."
Creating a draw for new audiences is what the festival is all about. Pontremoli feels "that jazz is the most inclusive of music. All of the artists, from the time it started, have incorporated the music of their time into the idiom. I think sometimes people think it's either some weird avant garde stuff they don't get, or it's big band, and there's a whole lot more than that."
This year, organizers are doing their part to fortify the jazz scene in Cleveland. In honor of the 35th JazzFest, a recreation of the iconic photo "A Great Day in Harlem" was staged on the staircase of the Palace Theatre lobby; 143 Cleveland musicians appear in the photo, "A Great Day in Cleveland," and in the accompanying documentary that premiered during last month's Jazz Film Series at the Cleveland Cinematheque. Take 5 Rhythm & Jazz club in the Warehouse District just held a JazzFest preview concert, and will be the official after-party spot this weekend. So when the shows are over and you need more jazz, you can head down the road to continue the fun and maybe meet some of the players.
As Cleveland increases the presence and draw of music festivals in town, Tri-C JazzFest is adapting to attract new audiences and create a centralized feel. JazzFest is already one of the biggest events of its kind in the country and hopefully this dynamic shift in format will gain it an even larger presence on the national scene. "I think there's a little more vitality right now in Cleveland, so I think it's a good year for [these changes] in JazzFest," says Pontremoli. "Cleveland is more ready for this kind of a festival."
Various artists, venues and dates. tri-c.edu/jazzfest.