Burlington Fest Makes Jazz Available to All


With its combination of indoor venues and outdoor stages, the Burlington Jazz Festival appeals to a wide variety of music fans.

(Photo: Brian MacDonald)

In a New York Times interview last year, Trey Anastasio reminisced about the night that he and his three bandmates in a less-than-1-year-old band called Phish attended a concert at the inaugural Burlington Jazz Festival in 1984 (not 1983, as he said in the article). The Modern Jazz Quartet headlined the show in the city’s 1930 art-deco movie palace, then called the Flynn Theatre.

Anastasio remembered looking up at the stage that night and thinking, “That is the model for the band we want to be. We’re going to be the Modern Jazz Quartet of rock ’n’ roll.” Thirty-five years later, he shared that memory with his colleagues, and they all agreed. “We were all like, ‘Oh, my God. That’s what happened!’ Which is really weird.”

The four musicians still attend the festival whenever their schedules permit, and their nonprofit WaterWheel Foundation funds a lot of the free and reduced-price concerts. Those affordable options make the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival more accessible to low-income jazz fans than most summertime music events. This year’s edition begins with a free, four-hour kick-off party on June 5, followed by nine days of music—each of those days offering free music downtown from noon to 8 p.m.

There will be ticketed events, as well, including an impressive variety of jazz artists, from pianist Bill Charlap to saxophonist Pharoah Sanders to guitarist Marc Ribot. The festival’s emphasis on affordability is a nod to its origin as a collaboration between the Burlington City Arts organization and the Flynn Center for the Performing Arts. Back then, the city’s mayor put a big emphasis on making sure arts and culture were available to everyone in town, no matter how rich or poor they were. That mayor’s name was Bernie Sanders.

“It’s important to us that everyone in the community is able to participate in the festival,” said Chelsea Lafayette, the managing director, now preparing for her fourth festival. “That was part of our original mission, and we try to stay true to that. For many, the arts are seen as a luxury, something that’s the first thing to be cut in school. So, it’s more important than ever to make sure that the arts are available to everyone. They’re an enriching experience and no one should be excluded.”

Not only does the festival try to offer something for every income level, it also offers something for most tastes. Every year, it books a blues act and a Latin-jazz act; this year it’s Fantastic Negrito and Cuban saxophonist/percussionist Yosvany Terry, respectively. The programming is rounded out with many school bands, as well as professional jazz bands from Vermont.

“The art scene in Vermont overachieves for a place this size,” Lafayette said. “That’s especially true for jazz; there’s a much stronger local scene than you’d expect. That’s because of people like Big Joe Burrell, a saxophonist who played with B.B. King and Count Basie before settling down in Vermont and becoming our Jedi master, a mentor to many musicians in the area, including Trey. Joe died in 2005, but we start every festival with Big Joe Burrell Day.”

In addition to offering free outdoor music and ticketed indoor music for each of its 10 days, the festival also offers workshops, discussion forums and public interviews, so the audience can make a more personal connection with the performers.

Lafayette cited saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin as a particularly good example of an artist establishing a strong connection with fans: “Lakecia came here in 2016 as part of vocalist Charenée Wade’s band. A lot of people were blown away by Lakecia, and they wanted us to bring her back. When I saw her playing new work at the Winter JazzFest in January, I knew I had to book her for this year’s festival. We’re a small enough festival that people get close to the performers, and when they get excited about someone, they want us to bring him or her back.”

Likely to have a similar impact at this year’s festival is trumpeter Jaimie Branch, who brings her quartet to the Flynn Space, a 180-seat, black-box theater, on June 8. Touring behind her second album, last year’s Fly Or Die II, Branch doesn’t plan to take any breaks onstage.

“We’re playing 70 to 90 minutes of continuous music in our sets now,” she said, “because we don’t lose momentum that way. It’s one long trip together. We’re playing in the moment, and everything is on the table. How the music unravels each night can depend on how much we traveled that day, the sound onstage, the vibe of the band, the response of the audience. That way, every show is going to be different from the one before or the one after it.” DB

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