Rochester International Jazz Festival Comes Of Age: A Report on the 5th RIJF


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And with [John] Nugent pulling quality music from all ends of the jazz spectrum, there
5th Rochester International Jazz Festival
Rochester, NY
June 9-17, 2006

With its fifth edition, the Rochester International Jazz Festival has come of age. With attendance up 20% over the previous year, the event has become a boon to local businesses and an event of civic pride, one that the city can get behind. More importantly, it has done so while still being an event of artistic merit, one that doesn't sell its audience short. Much credit is given to festival organizers, musician John Nugent (the creative side of the festival) and local businessman Mark Iacona (the logistics side).

John Nugent and School of the Arts Jazz Band students. Photo by Don Ver Ploeg.

The festival now spans 9 days, over 600 musicians and 170 concerts. And the formula Nugent has been using in booking the concerts seems to have paid off. Start with some popular, commercial names (Woody Allen, Etta James, James Brown, McCoy Tyner etc) for large ticketed concerts in the Eastman Theatre (capacity 3,000). These concerts tend to draw people in the community who would not normally go to a jazz festival event. They're also shows that the local media can "understand and get behind. Most of these concerts were at near capacity and Etta James sold out. The remaining concerts are then parceled out among six clubs and concert halls, all within a three-block radius. These are the concerts jazz listeners covet. Nugent has made a genuine effort to be all-inclusive in his view of jazz.
This year's festival presented Cedar Walton, Karrin Allyson, Billy Bang, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Dutch piano trio Braam-DeJoode-Vatcher, up and coming saxophonist Steve Gauci, Jane Bunnett, Swedish group e.s.t., Austin loonies Asylum Street Spankers and many others. These groups appeared in clubs holding about 200 people and most of these shows were filled to capacity. It's heartening to see packed houses for Bang and Dr. Lonnie Smith. These shows are accessed through a club pass that cost under $100 and allows admittance to any club show for the nine days. There are also a number of free events. These are open-air concerts held on Gibbs St., a small cross street that's the site of the Eastman School of Music. For the week, the street was closed off and a number of national and local acts gave free concerts: Jacob Fred Jazz Odyssey (who also did two club shows), local saxophonist Sharantha Beddage, local favorites (now residing in NYC) The Respect Sextet, Hungarian fusion band Djabe all performed. Ultimately, it was a great selection of events and accessible to all.

Audience shows it's appreciation to McCoy Tyner Trio at the Eastman Theatre. Photo by Garry Geer.

This is a festival whose reputation is obviously growing, not only regionally but also internationally. Official figures are not yet in but it looks like over 80,000 people attended this year. That's an appreciable rise over the initial year's 15,000 attendees. But with this increase in attendance, growing pains are inevitable. Club passes allowed listeners access to all club gigs, however early attendance was advised since people were admitted on a first come, first serve basis. This created some disgruntlement among latecomers. If the numbers keep increasing, more venues will need to be added. But generally speaking the vibe was cool and relaxed throughout the week. One of the pleasures of the festival was mingling along Gibbs St., running into old friends, neighbors you never realized listened to jazz, people from Italy, the U.K., Holland who had heard of the event and made a trip expressly to see it. It's hard to believe this is all happening in an upstate New York city that has been through some genuinely difficult financial times with its major industries moving to cheaper climes. The RIJF is not cure but it's a healthy bit of infusion this city needs.

Of course, I'm not naïve and I can't see urban planners calling for jazz festivals as the remedy to decaying urban centers. But it seems to be helping Rochester, bringing in people from the suburbs who are spending money AND having a good time. And with Nugent pulling quality music from all ends of the jazz spectrum, there's a strong creative pull in what is really quite a creative city with a strong, unique blend of various musical, visual and literary arts.

As the festival wound down toward the end of the week, I kept hearing people ask each other, "What's been your favorite moment of the festival? I heard some phenomenal music and had some great times this year. (Read my three part review.) But I would single out one moment above all as my favorite: when the Respect Sextet charged into a spirited rendition of Albert Ayler's "Truth Is Marching In at a street concert. I shook my head and marveled at the sight of Ayler's music being played to a crowd of street revelers, 75% of whom had no idea who Albert Ayler was. The piece got a great cheer at the end. Who would've thought that 36 years ago when he died, Ayler's music would have this much of a reach? He must have been looking down and smiling.

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