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Spevak's Preview: The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival

The press releases have grown so familiar in the past few years, they could almost be a chanted mantra as the Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival draws nearer:

320-plus shows, 97 free shows and events, 20 venues.

1,500-plus artists from 20 countries.

And … food trucks!

But the true constant is change. The festival, which opens Friday in and around the East End District and goes for nine days, closing on June 30, runs on a well-oiled template. Yet, “The jazz fest will always adjust and change,” says co-producer John Nugent. “Depending on the politics, business, sponsors, the lay of the land.”

The template includes a diverse roster of headlining shows in Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. Soulful vocalist Seal on opening night, followed by Boz Scaggs, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, bluegrass queen Alison Krauss, the indie-rock harmonizers Lake Street Dive and soul/R&B singer Jill Scott. Scaggs, Krauss and Lake Street Dive are sold out.


That template gets even more diverse as the crowds – a record 205,000 people last year – explore the closed off-streets: Gibbs Street all week, East Avenue and Chestnut Street on Fridays and Saturdays as well. The lineup of Club Pass and free shows reveals even more. The teenage piano sensation Joey Alexander. The Gypsy jazz guitar of Stephane Wremble. Trumpeter Terell Stafford’s graceful bow to past greats such as Lee Morgan. The roadhouse of Junior Brown and his “guit-steel” guitar. The female harmonies of VickiKristinaBarcelona romanticizing on the songs of Tom Waits. Ulysses Owens, Jr., and his “Songs of Freedom” saluting the freedom-seeking music of Joni Mitchell, Abbey Lincoln and Nina Simone. The Joe Locke Group, featuring the Rochester native and world-renowned vibraphonist.

Nugent is a world-class tenor saxophonist, his co-producer Marc Iacona is an earnest jazz trumpeter. Both have been onstage at their own festival. Perhaps the creativity that lurks within artists, their need to make an artistic statement, plays a role in the look of the festival each year. “If you can save yourself time and money, you do what everyone else is doing,” Nugent says. “But I don’t like to copy what other people are doing.” It may be more costly to forge your own path, Nugent says, but “originality establishes identity.”

Yet the jazz fest’s identity is, in part, also smart business decisions. After closing out the festival the last two years with big shows on Parcel 5, the midtown gravel lot will not be a part of the event this year. “It’s too costly,” Nugent said. “It’s not just the lot, it’s the stuff that goes on the lot.”

That’s portable bathrooms, fencing, security. Instead, the signature big weekends of free music and streets filled with thousands of people will be limited to the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage: The ’60s-styled R&B rock of Vintage Trouble Friday, Brian Setzer’s rockabilly Saturday, The techno-dance of St. Germain June 29 and Tower of Power, currently on its 50th anniversary tour, June 30. The fest will also try out a new outdoor venue on June 29, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial at Manhattan Square Park, the home of the Thursday night Party in the Park series, with a free roots-music show featuring Pokey LaFarge and Sarah Borges & the Broken Singles.

More changes: After two years in the Lyric Theatre, the jazz fest has left the East Avenue venue. This, after Nugent and Iacona had announced they would be booking shows at the Lyric beyond the jazz festival when the vast room was taken over by Rochester’s Lyric Opera. That hasn’t happened. Despite its gorgeous, century-old architecture, its rows of wood pews, and a room designed to project the spoken word of church services, the acoustics aren’t a match for the jazz festival’s needs. Only acoustic shows were working at the Lyric, Nugent says. “Unfortunately, the funds weren’t there to renovate it.”

Alison Krauss

Replacing the Lyric in the lineup is the Temple Building Theater at Liberty Pole Way, within the festival’s tidy East End District footprint. The building, about the same size as the Lyric at 800 seats, has evolved from church to rock club to church again, and as an active church won’t be available for the Sunday of the festival. It has undergone the kind of sound-enhancing renovations lacking at the Lyric. “We’re the beneficiaries of a well-tweaked room,” says Glen Tilley, the Canadian producer who Nugent brought in to run the venue’s sound.

It is a music festival community built on business, sponsors, the lay of the land. And politics. Nugent and Iacona’s political concerns are the local machinery. With the exception of tightrope walking the world of obtaining visas, their political concerns do not leave Monroe County. Yet the jazz fest lineup is well stocked with foreign nationals, particularly Canadians; Nugent is a native of Canada. And they have been insulted. At the recent G7 summit meeting, President Trump suggested that Canada was a national security threat, offering as evidence the burning of the White House in the War of 1812. Which was actually done by British troops, but don’t get picky, it’s been a while. To add to the national security concerns raised by Trump, British musicians will be here as well, as part of the “Made in the UK” series.

One of those British musicians invading the festival is the delightful singer Gwyneth Herbert. On WXXI’s Connections show with Evan Dawson earlier this week, talking by phone from England, Herbert conceded that alongside the little communities of characters and stories that she builds into her songs, she’s increasingly concerned with social issues and politics.

But musicians have always meddled in such matters.

“Community,” she said, “is politics.”

Friday: Jazz Fest Day One

There are two epicenters on opening night at the fest. At 8 p.m. at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre is Seal, the English soul singer whose initial sound reflected the dance clubs that he emerged from in the late 1980s. His latest album is a collection of standards ranging from Sinatra to Screaming Jay Hawkins’ “I Put A Spell on You.” At 9 p.m. is the first of the big free outdoor shows at the East Avenue and Chestnut Street Stage: Vintage Trouble, a California band that set out to create a retro-R&B rock sound reminiscent of the 1960s, creating a machine worthy of opening for The Rolling Stones. Opening on that stage at 7 p.m. is one-time Gregg Allman Band guitarist Scott Sharrard.

Also Friday night, a pair of pianists with unusual stories: 

Joey Alexander Trio, 7 and 9:15 p.m., Temple Building Theatre. Alexander was a sensation at the fest two years ago, a 12-year-old pianist from Bali who played a solo show that included music by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane at the Lyric Theatre with astonishing maturity. He was back last year, teaming up with Chick Corea at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. He’ll turn 15 three days after this year, which he’ll play as a trio. With four albums out already, three Grammy nominations and enthusiastic endorsements from Corea and Wynton Marsalis, Alexander is a virtually inexplicable phenomena.

Matt Savage, 5:45 and 7:45 p.m., Hatch Recital Hall. Like Alexander, Savage is also young, just 26, but has already released 12 albums and toured the world. But the Massachusetts native’s story always starts with a form of autism, pervasive developmental disorder: He was diagnosed at age 3, when he could not tolerate any sounds, including music. Yet by 6 Savage was reading piano music, and has since been categorized as a “prodigious savant.”

And for your old-school cravings:

Terell Stafford, 6 and 9 p.m., Kilbourn Hall. Most recently, trumpeter Stafford has been rummaging through other musicians’ works: Lee Morgan, Billy Strayhorn and his latest release, the upbeat Forgive and Forget, songs by tenor saxophonist Herb Harris. But Stafford’s recorded his own material as well, and has played with jazz luminaries such as McCoy Tyner and Christian McBride, so he has a wide field to draw from. Don’t forget, entry to Kilbourn and Max of Eastman shows is through wrist bands issued beforehand at the venues as a way to eliminate the wait in lines there.


Tickets to the Eastman Theatre shows, and nine- and three-day Club Passes are available at and (585) 454-2060. Admission at the door for club shows is $30 or $35, with the shows usually lasting about an hour.       

Jeff Spevak
Credit WXXI News
Jeff Spevak


I’ll be on Scott Regan’s “Open Tunings” show, WRUR-FM (88.5) at about 10:30 a.m. Friday, and will do a live report from the jazz fest at about 5:50 p.m. Friday on WXXI-AM (1370) and WRUR-FM, and streaming at

Jeff Spevak is a Rochester-based writer. His web site is He will be reporting for WXXI throughout the Xerox Rochester International Jazz