After a two-year hiatus, Rochester gets its jazz on
Road crews have been filling cracks and potholes on East Avenue and Gibbs Street. That’s just one sign that it’s time for the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival.
Other signs besides the reduced threat of twisted ankles?
Huge tents are going up on East, Gibbs, East Main Street and the downtown grazing patch of Parcel 5, all ready for music. Food trucks are getting gassed up. And an entire city is hotly anticipating nine days of jazz haikus filed by the WXXI Arts & Life team.
A lot of music fans — and people who just like to see a city’s downtown used to its best potential — have patiently waited through two years of pandemic shutdown for this. That’s reflected in the fact that many people who bought their Club Passes for the 2020 festival have held onto them for this moment.
“We had single-digit responses for refunds,” says Marc Iacona, the festival’s co-producer and executive director.
He calls the Club Pass holders “a dialed-in crowd.” But they’ll only stay on hold for so long. Patience has its limits.
“Two years is patience,” Iacona says. “The third year, if we didn’t have one…”
It’s hard to predict what harm out of sight, out of mind, might do to such an event’s mojo. The organizers estimate it drew more than 208,000 people in 2019. That was record attendance for the jazz festival, recognized as one of the top events of its kind in the country.
“We had to do it,” Iacona says of the decision that he and Co-Producer and Artistic Director John Nugent made to proceed with this year’s festival. “Not only for the community, John and I had to do it for us. Because you come to a crossroads and say … what do we do now? Is it ever really gonna happen again, right? So this is really pivotal that this happened.”
This year’s jazz festival, the 19th, will have a different look to it. Gone are the Kodak Hall at Eastman Theatre shows. So are the two free outdoor stages at either end of East Avenue -- stages that in past years drew massive crowds to the closed-off streets, a signature image of the jazz festival. All of that energy is being channeled a few blocks away, to Parcel 5, off East Main Street.
Those are the big changes. Another difference, Iacona suggests, is the mindset of the jazz fest audience.
“I think what’s different is that, people have been kind of cooped up for two years, and people are getting used to coming back out to events,” he says. “Obviously it started first in theaters, and then some small concerts, some small festivals. And now I think – because things are lightening up a bit in terms of just restrictions, and regulations – I think people are finally ready to come out.”
It’s more than public boredom that floats such events. Iacona and Nugent have rewired the festival to accommodate changes in venues and changes in the economics. On that last count, it received substantial state money from the Shuttered Venue Operators Grant.
“We made a decision to say, ‘We’re going to take a majority of this grant and apply it toward free shows for the community,’” Iacona says. By his estimate, 60% of the festival is free.
“We wanted to do the right thing with taxpayers’ money.”
Here’s what your money gets you. Nine evenings of free shows at Parcel 5. Friday night is jazz trumpeter Chris Botti, making his fifth appearance at the festival; Iacona, a fellow trumpet player, considers Botti a friend. Botti goes on at 9 p.m., following two Rochester groups: The Dave Rivello Ensemble at 5 p.m. and CMC (that’s Casey Filiaci on piano, bassist Mark Terranova and drummer David Cohen) at 7 p.m.
Over the course of the festival, the Parcel 5 mainstage will offer The Devon Allman Project (yes, that is Gregg’s son, playing originals and some Allmans music, with the band’s old liquid light show), guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, Spyro Gyra, Robin Thicke, Booker T’s Soul Stax Revue and G Love & Special Sauce. And two nights that are nods to the late Prince: Percussionist Sheila E., plus the New Power Generation playing the music of Prince.
Also free, on the festival’s final weekend: The acoustic Bacon Brothers, including actor Kevin Bacon, and Drew Holcomb & the Neighbors. The latter takes the place of Wynonna Judd, who dropped out after the recent death of her mother and music partner, Naomi Judd. Both shows are at a new venue for the festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park.
On paper, these free shows maybe do not rise to the level of previous jazz festival headliners such as James Brown, Dave Brubeck, Oscar Peterson, Jeff Beck and the banjo star Steve Martin, who also told a few jokes. But music is in the ear of the beholder, of course. And Iacona dropped a hint that the festival is looking to book Wynton Marsalis next year.
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.
All of these shows are outdoors. “The weather is the wild card, and it always is, pandemic or not,” Iacona says.
“It’s really about the free shows and the weather.”
Will festival attendance, in this season of public-health concerns, reach the heights of the last few years?
“If we had 250,000, fantastic,” Iacona says. “If 150,000, and those people are all delighted, it’s just as good to me.”
Familiar stages such as the Harro East Ballroom, Christ Church and Anthology have dropped off the map; the jazz fest has not been immune from squabbles between the festival and its venues. Uncertainly has been in the air more than music these past two years; Bethel Christian Fellowship had been announced as a new venue in 2020, but it has disappeared from the discussion. The following year, the jazz fest announced that it would be moving to Rochester Institute of Technology before the whole idea was quietly dropped.
The new Club Pass venue is the Hyatt Regency Ballroom, which will also play host to the after-hours jam session. The unique aspect to this venue is its two levels: The stage and seating are on the ground floor, and patrons can look down onto the stage from the second-floor lobby.
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, making her seventh appearance, 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. Locke is here for the seventh time. Also at the venue, making his ninth 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 revival of the festival is what Iacona says he hopes is “a catapult to better times.”
The entire lineup, and the three- and nine-day Club Passes, are available at rochesterjazz.com.