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Jazz festival will happen but will move to RIT

Fred SanFilipo/WXXI file photo

After being canceled last year due to the pandemic, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival is on track for this summer -- but will be held for the first time outside the city and later than usual, festival organizers announced Thursday.

The festival’s co-producers, Marc Iacona and John Nugent, said they were moving the popular nine-day concert series to the Rochester Institute of Technology campus in Henrietta to better adhere to state health guidelines. The festival is scheduled for July 30 to Aug. 7.

The relocation of the festival is an economic blow to downtown, particularly East End bars and restaurants that serve as venues for the event, which organizers estimate draws upward of 200,000 people annually.

News of the relocation caught the administration of Mayor Lovely Warren off guard. City spokesperson Justin Roj said he learned of the change Thursday. He cast the move as understandable given the ongoing health crisis, and said that he hoped to see the festival return to downtown in the future.

“Rochester has a myriad of successful festivals, and jazz fest is an important part of that,” Roj said. “We certainly look forward to them coming back downtown in the future.”

City Council routinely funds the jazz festival in part and last  year had approved $243,000 in funding for the event, by far the largest allotment for any festival that year. Roj said the money was never disbursed and that the city will not be providing any funding for the festival in 2021 because it is being held outside the city limits.

Council member Mary Lupien proposed shifting the funding for the jazz festival, which comes from a roughly $1 million budget for special events, to the Rochester Fringe Festival.

"The Rochester Fringe Festival also brings millions to the community, yet receives only a fraction of the funding," Lupien said.

The Fringe Festival features hundreds of performing arts acts and spans 12 days, typically beginning in late summer. The city did not fund the most recent incarnation, which was held virtually last fall, but allotted $40,000 to the 2019 festival, which organizers said drew 100,000 people.

Last year’s jazz festival was to take place, as it traditionally does, in late June. The onset of the pandemic forced its postponement to October, and then later, to June 2021. The announcement Thursday pushed that date further by more than a month.

Nugent and Iacona said the RIT campus allows for more flexibility in venues and the timing of the event will leave more time for festival goers to get vaccinated.

RIT President David Munson said the campus offers "an expansive setting where COVID safety precautions can be observed."

Munson said RIT has invested more than $8 million in infrastructure upgrades to combat the coronavirus, such as air purification systems and innovations in touchless technology. In addition to using this infrastructure to host indoor concerts, the campus provides large spaces for outdoor shows and nearby parking, he said.

A definitive lineup will not be announced until the spring, but organizers said they plan to honor as many artists’ contracts from the scheduled 2020 festival as possible. Uncertainty over health restrictions and international travel leaves the festival with a limited palette to create a lineup.

Nugent called the scramble to book shows “guerilla warfare mode in programming.”

“We’re in anything but a normal situation right now,” Nugent said. “We’re optimists. Can we put a program together? You betcha we can.”

Puss N Boots.
Credit Puss N Boots Music
The Puss N Boots show will not be part of this year's event.

Two shows scheduled to headline last year -- Spyro Gyra and Puss n Boots -- will be canceled and refunds will be provided, according to the festival. Club Pass holders will be able to use their passes at this year’s festival, or use them for either the 2022 or 2023 festivals. No refunds are permitted.

“We’re going to try to, we’re going to bring artists from the Northeast, and there’s thousands of great bands in the Northeast that can drive here,” Nugent added. “So we’re optimistic we can pull something together. At this stage, anything is better than nothing, because there hasn’t been live music in over a year.”

Jeff Spevak has been a Rochester arts reporter for nearly three decades, with seven first-place finishes in the Associated Press New York State Features Writing Awards while working for the Democrat and Chronicle.
James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.