San Jose Festival Celebrates Local, International Artists

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Dianne Reeves, seen here at the 2012 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, returns to the festival this year.

(Photo: Robert Birnbach)

San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, which is celebrating its 30th edition Aug. 9–11 with headliners such as Gregory Porter, Ivan Lins and Pink Martini, has become known for its expansive outdoor main stage. Located at Plaza de Cesar Chavez in downtown San Jose, California, it has a long, rectangular VIP section directly in front of its elevated stage and a general admission area surrounding it.

But the annual summer gathering, originally called the San Jose Jazz Festival, nearly began as an indoor affair. “We were told by the city that we could have the convention center for free,” recalled Bruce Labadie, San Jose Jazz’s artistic and festival director (and one of the organization’s co-founders). “But around June, I started getting very nervous.”

Presenting an indoor festival meant having to rent scores of chairs. “And who is going to want to go inside in the summer?” he asked, rhetorically. The nonprofit group decided “to go for broke and make it free, and put it outside and just hope we sell enough alcoholic beverages to make it pay for itself.”

The inaugural SJJF attracted 10,000 patrons with paid VIPs up front and everyone else enjoying four fusion acts on Saturday and four straightahead troupes on Sunday. The fest was a success, and the Salsa Stage was added in 1991. Three more bandstands were added the year after that.

“I wanted to book more artists who weren’t really that well-known and might only attract 150 to 200 people, but were great artists who were critically acclaimed,” Labadie explained when asked about the impetus to eventually add indoor stages. Larger indoor spots, such as The Hammer Theatre (capacity 532), came on board later.

The festival was able to remain free until 2006: “We charged five dollars a day that first year, and people were upset,” Labadie said. “The next year, we had to go up to 10 dollars, and the sentiment at the gate was, ‘How can you do it for so cheap?’”

With weekend general admission passes as low as $45 last year, Summer Fest tends to attract families and casual fans, as well as those who can be found in jazz clubs throughout the year.

“I really enjoy the festival,” said vocalist Dianne Reeves, one of this year’s headliners, who also performed on the main stage in 1991, 1997 and 2012. “I remember one time, my mother came up with me, and she had an incredible time.”

When DownBeat told Reeves that a local DJ and MC keep the crowd entertained in between sets and that the audience often breaks into the electric slide en masse, the singer chuckled. “And that’s as it should be,” she remarked. “That’s good, when people come together like that and just have a good time in the name of celebration.”

The festival presented many jazz acts during early phases in their career trajectories, such as trumpeter Chris Botti (before he found worldwide success embracing standards) and the Brad Mehldau Trio (more than a year prior to the release of its breakthrough album Songs: Art Of The Trio, Volume Three) in 1997. Four summers ago, it featured saxophonist Kamasi Washington, before local nonjazz festivals like Outside Lands and Noise Pop booked him.

With that kind of booking, the fest has drawn an international fan base. “Some people I’ve talked to at the festival fly in from different parts of the country—and even the world—to come and enjoy it,” trumpeter John Worley said. “It’s a very friendly festival.” A resident of nearby Palo Alto, Worley has performed at Summer Fest over the years with his own groups, as well as with the likes of saxophonists Jimmy Heath and Kristen Strom, percussionist Pete Escovedo and trombonist Wayne Wallace.

This year’s roster is set to host talent from eight countries in Asia, Europe and South America, but more than half of its acts are locally sourced. “They’ve never shied away from giving some good spots to local musicians like myself,” Worley said. With concerts on 12 stages and numerous venues slated to participate, the programming will present a variety of styles, including Latin alternative, blues, big bands and brass bands. But Afro-Cuban groups have been one of Summer Fest’s strongest draws.

“I remember walking around downtown as this large festival was going on and being exposed to all this music that was different from the more popular music I was listening to at the time,” said Brendan Rawson, SJZ executive director and a Bay Area native, recalling his early experiences at the fest.

“It struck me and stuck with me that this is how a community celebrates itself with music.” DB




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May 2021
Shabaka Hutchings
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