With a record number of free shows — including Chris Botti and Robin Thicke — Rochester's jazz fest returns
After a two-year pandemic-induced hiatus, the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival hopes you haven’t forgotten it.
To entice the return of record crowds — 209,000 attended the nine-day event in 2019 — the June 17-25 event is offering a record number of free shows.
Federal grant money has turned the festival into a free-for-all.
“It’s been two years, and we figured we should come out and make a statement, and take a majority of the support and make it free programming,” said Marc Iacona, the festival’s co-producer and executive director.
“I believe that we’re doing the right thing. Genuinely, artistically and as an organization, it’s the right thing to do after these last two years.”
The free shows include all of the major headlining acts, which in previous years have been presented at Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre. It will not be a venue this year, with the festival epicenter moving to the downtown landscaping adventure at Parcel 5 on East Main Street.
Those names don’t have quite the clout of headliners over the last 18 festivals, which have included Dave Brubeck, James Brown and Aretha Franklin. But the names do suggest an outdoor party atmosphere, starting with the jazz trumpet of a former Kodak Hall headliner, Chris Botti, on opening night.
Also on the Parcel 5 schedule: Devon Allman, son of Gregg, June 18. Wizard guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, June 19. Vintage fusionists Spyro Gyra, June 20. R&B vocalist Robin Thicke, June 21. Flashy R&B drummer Sheila E., on June 22. Booker T’s Soul Stax Review, June 23.
The late Prince’s old band, New Power Generation, plays his music on June 24. And the soul-pop of G Love & Special Sauce closes the festival June 25.
Mayor Malik Evans was among those welcoming back the festival at Tuesday morning’s announcement of the lineup at The Theatre at Innovation Square. He anticipates $9 million pouring into the city, noting that some downtown businesses have told him that a major portion of their yearly revenue comes during the festival.
“Is there a better ambassador for Rochester,” Evans asked, “than jazz fest?”
Despite the pandemic that has plagued the arts for two years, Co-Producer and Artistic Director John Nugent said filling the nine days of the festival was not an issue.
“Everybody wants to come work,” Nugent said. “Everybody wants to play. I’ve had more requests to book here in the past three weeks.”
Timing was everything.
“Because of the way things have turned in the last six weeks to eight weeks,” Nugent said, “everybody who hadn’t e-mailed me is e-mailing me now. And it’s too late, because we’re already programmed.”
International acts have long been a significant part of the festival. And those musicians’ ability to come to the United States was shaky in the midst of the pandemic.
“It’s getting better now, but for a long time it was shut down,” Nugent said.
Two other notable free shows, at Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial Park, are The Bacon Brothers on June 24 – that includes actor Kevin Bacon – and a country show carried over from the unrealized festival of 2020, Wynonna Judd.
A closed-down Gibbs Street, renamed Jazz Street during the festival, remains a free stage. Opening night is typical of the offerings, with soul and roots rocker Nikki Hill.
Familiar venues such as the Harro East Ballroom and Christ Church have dropped off the map. The new Club Pass venue is the Hyatt Regency Ballroom, which will also play host to the after-hours jam session.
Two venues may sound new at first glance, but they are merely renamed. Glory House International is the former Lutheran Church of the Reformation, presenting some of the Nordic offerings of past years. However, the first two Glory House nights come to the festival from New York City; vocalist Tessa Souter and the large progressive jazz ensemble NYChillharmonic, which surely gets some kind of award for best name.
And The Theatre at Innovation Square is the former Xerox Auditorium. Its Club Pass shows include an opening night with the self-described California Guitar Trio, and later the Django Reinhardt-inspired guitar of Stephane Wrembel and the saucy Davina & the Vagabonds.
Kilbourn Hall returns as a Club Pass venue, presenting some of the purest jazz performers, including the Jeremy Pelt Quintet and scat-singing vocalist Kurt Elling. Max of Eastman Place, Montage Music Hall, the piano-pristine Hatch Recital Hall, the roots lineup of The Little Theater and The Wilder Room are also back.
Temple Theater has a handful of returning favorites, including the vocalist Robin McKelle and world-renowned vibraphonist Joe Locke, both of whom grew up in Rochester. Also at the venue, making his seventh jazz fest appearance, is guitarist Bill Frisell.
The Rochester Regional Health Big Tent also returns as a Club Pass venue, with an opening night of the charming western swing jazz of Hot Club of Cowtown.
The entire lineup, and the three- and nine-day Club Passes, are available at rochesterjazz.com.