Jazz is for the People
Carl Mellor

Gil Scott Heron opened his set at last year’s Jazz Fest with anti-nuclear power song, “We Almost Lost Detroit.”

Syracuse’s jazz scene is multi-faceted, and there’s no way one article can cover the entire scene. The following discussion highlights a few aspects of jazz in our city.

First, Syracuse has a long, rich jazz lineage. In the 1960s, for example, the Penguin Grill, the 800 Club and other clubs in the 15th Ward (a predominantly African American neighborhood that was destroyed to put in Route 81) presented not only local musicians such as Chris Powell but also future legends like John Coltrane.

Then during the 1970s Miles Davis, Weather Report and John McLaughlin all played at various venues on the Syracuse University campus. The Dinkler, on James Street, showcased many well-known jazz musicians while the Catch, a neighborhood bar on Erie Boulevard East, had a top-shelf jazz jukebox and a bebop band playing on Saturday nights. Twenty years later, Sakura’s and Georgia’s, a pair of downtown clubs, offered jazz on a regular basis.

And there have been many opportunities for people to enjoy concerts outdoors, in city parks, downtown and at other sites. The Jazzmobile, a mobile concert series that traveled from city to city within New York State, presented Art Blakey and a variety of other well-established performers. More recently, the Jazz in the City series has made it possible for local musicians to play on Westcott Street, in Eastwood and other Syracuse neighborhoods. Jazz in the Square continues to present its annual festival in Clinton Square.

The granddaddy of the summer jazz season, Syracuse Jazz Fest, has enjoyed a 29-year run, with the last 20 years as a free festival. Having been held at three other sites over the years, in 2001 the festival moved to the Onondaga Community College (OCC) campus. Along the way, Jazz Fest has featured luminaries ranging from Joshua Redman to Sonny Rollins, from Dizzy Gillespie to Dave Brubeck.

This will be the second year of collaboration between Syracuse Jazz Fest, the largest free Jazz festival in the Northeast, and the Syracuse Peace Council, the organizer
of the annual Plowshares Craftsfair, CNY’s premiere multi-cultural craftshow.

Friday, June 24, 3-9 PM
Saturday, June 25, 3-9 PM

at the Onondaga Community College campus
www.peacecouncil.net/SummerCrafts for details & directions

SummerCrafts vendors will be adjacent to the food vendors. Look for many of your favorite craftspeople from Plowshares, the SPC Info Tent, and stay to enjoy the great music!

Moreover, Frank Malfitano, the festival’s executive director, has demonstrated an ability to conceive and execute compelling themes for a particular festival. For example, after Hurricane Katrina, Jazz Fest paid homage to New Orleans and its musicians with an evening devoted to performers from the Crescent City: Doctor John, zydeco master C.J. Chenier and his band, the Redhots, Marcia Ball, a boogie-woogie piano player.

On June 24 and 25, the 2011 edition of Jazz Fest will take place again on the OCC campus. The bands will include bluesman Robert Cray and his bandmates, the Average White Band, and Return to Forever IV whose line-up includes Stanley Clarke, Jean Luc Ponty and Chick Corea. As usual, the festival makes room for emerging musicians as well. Once again there are slots reserved for high school and college jazz musicians.

Most importantly, Jazz Fest continues to be a free festival. The current recession has had a dire impact on various cultural entities, and Jazz Fest has struggled with fiscal problems. Economic conditions have made it more and more difficult to raise the funds necessary to present the festival. 

Yet Jazz Fest is happening one more time. Its structure encourages attendance by a cross-section of the public, by people from Syracuse neighborhoods, from local suburbs and towns, from places outside Central New York. Clearly, income levels don’t dictate the make-up of the festival’s audience. At this point, that’s a significant achievement, one well worth celebrating.


Carl is a longtime SPC activist, member of the Westcott Community Center board, and a regular at our PNL mailing parties.