Umbria Jazz Festival Turns 50 with Grace

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A beautiful night and delighted crowd at Arena San Giuliana in Perugia, Italy.

(Photo: Giancarlo Belifore)

Jazz festival culture remains a relatively young, by most accounts birthed by promoter George Wein with the Newport Jazz Festival in 1958, soon followed by the Monterey Jazz Festival — which now sports the imprimatur as the oldest continuously running festival. But Europe, long a critical and even umbilical aspect of jazz’s support system, wasn’t far behind in establishing an ever-expanding universe of important jazz festivals. This year, the list of fests attaining the lofty feat of the 50-year-mark is one of the world’s finest examples of jazz festival life: Umbria Jazz Festival.

To get to the Umbria festival, many fly to Rome and head north. A two-hour drive takes you to the lush hills of the Umbria region, and up a particular hill where Perugia sits in its scenic, old worldly splendor. There, for 10 July days, the city is consumed with jazz and related musics, and fans, musicians, passionate observers and casual tourists, taking in music from the large arena to the historic Teatro Morlacchi (circa 1781), a fine museum and outdoor stages about the town. (The separate, shorter Umbria Jazz Winter festival, celebrating 30 years this winter, takes place in Umbria’s Orvieto).

From the festival’s beginning in 1973, the principal architect and mover/shaker has been veteran director Carlo Pagnotta. In a recent interview, he deflected praise for his own initiatives, insisting that, “if, after 50 years, Umbria Jazz has arrived at this point, it is because we have all worked well, and I am very proud of this accomplishment.”

Over the past half century, the expansive list of artists appearing in Perugia’s summer gathering is essentially an index of important jazz musicians — along with many pop and so-called “world music” artists. On the as-yet unfinished 50th anniversary festival roster, running July 7–16, is a list including Herbie Hancock, Brad Mehldau, Branford Marsalis, Danilo Pérez with John Patitucci, John Cruz, Bill Frisell, Gerald Clayton, Kenny Barron, Miguel Zenon and Luis Perdomo, Brandee Younger, Chano Dominguez with Flavio Boltro, Ranky Tanky, Ben Harper, Joe Bonamassa, Paolo Conte, Stewart Copeland, Rhiannon Giddens and Samara Joy, who has been an artist-in-residence in Perugia for the past two summers.

Pagnotta acknowledges that the festival’s success and legacy owe much to the insistence on aesthetic quality control, balanced with carefully tending a bottom line with more popular, sometimes commercial choices. And the antique beauty of the setting is an ideal backdrop. “Umbria Jazz enjoys its place in the world of jazz thanks to its winning formula,” he says. “It has been written that in the 10 days of the festival it is, in fact, three festivals in one: number one, the main stage, secondly, in theaters, clubs and the Galleria Nazionale dell’Umbria — the most important museum in Umbria, and third, free concerts on three different stages that maintain the formula of the original festival in the ’70s.”

Free concerts, in fact, account for the seminal stage of the festival’s life, when Pagnotta was president of the Jazz Club Perugia (for the historical record, that organization grew out of the ’50s-based Hot Club). At the outset, Pagnotta explains, “I presented the local government — Regione Umbria — with a proposal for an international jazz festival. The formula for the festival which began in 1973 was for free concerts held every day in different Umbrian towns. The ’70s were the years of youth protests which grew out of control, and so we were forced to suspend the festival in 1978.

“We began again in 1982 with a new formula, with both paying and free concerts, and year after year we grew to the point of being invited — in 1990 — to become part of the European Jazz Festivals Organization, which later became the International Jazz Festivals Organization.”

Along the winding and ever-adapting path of the festival’s history, Pagnotta has been up close and personal with the changes in jazz and its makers and facilitators. Looking back, he says, “There are so many memories, but I would just like to cite George Wein, the maestro of us all, who taught us how to organize a festival. I had the privilege of meeting George at the beginning of the ’60s. I also have many nostalgic memories of the musicians — many are friends — who have left us, the latest being the legendary Wayne Shorter who performed at the very first Umbria Jazz festival with Weather Report.”

Putting the festival’s long history into perspective, Pagnotta comments, “During all these years we have seen the steady growth of Italian jazz, which has arrived late with respect to many European countries. I hope that Umbria Jazz will continue in this way and I like to think that, in my small way, I have contributed to the growth of jazz in Italy.” DB



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