Apr 10, 2016
In 2016, it is safe to say that there are jazz festivals, and then there are jazz festivals. Many events slap the word “jazz” in the title, even though the acts they are presenting may only peripherally have anything to do with jazz – Blues, R&B and Classic Soul headliners are all too common.
Other jazz festivals are narrow in their presenting scope – think the smooth jazz and soul jazz that gets presented each winter in the popular Berks Jazz Fest in Reading, Pennsylvania. There is nothing wrong with that festival – in fact, it gets bigger and better every year – but it does not present the kind of cross-section or overview that a modern jazz festival should have. And there is less curating at festivals as time goes on. To me, that means that the acts are those who are on tour and are making a stop at this particular venue, rather than acts that are coming specifically for this festival, to play especially themed shows, or to match up with new and different talent. Detroit has done this exceedingly well with their “Artist in Residence” program, bringing in a jazz giant to play in a number of different musical configurations and styles over four days.
Lastly, should the 2016 jazz festival be a weekend at a gated location – think Newport, Monterey, or Saratoga – or should it be let loose across multiple venues in a city, as in Burlington, Vermont, and to a lesser extent, Detroit?
I offer up the PDX Jazz Festival as perhaps the best of all worlds. The 13th annual festival, held in Portland, Oregon, just completed a highly successful ten plus days of entertainment in and around the City of Roses. The event showcases local talent as well as brings in world-caliber players. This year the thematic thread that ran through the festival was the 90thbirthday anniversary of John Coltrane, with curated events that honored his work. As a result, PDX presented the likes of Ravi Coltrane in “Universal Consciousness”, a tribute to his mother Alice Coltrane with bassist Reggie Workman, pianist Geri Allen, harpist Brandee Younger, and drummer Andrew Cyrille.; and Africa/Brass in concert under the direction of Portland Jazz Master Charles Gray, with featured solos by Coltrane.
The closing night of the festival may have shown what it does best - three contemporary saxophonists in “The Saxophone Summit Supreme” to play final odes to Coltrane, channeling the spirit of the early 2000s group Saxophone Summit. The collective covered multiple generations, including Jimmy Greene, Devin Phillips, and JD Allen, with backing piano by Orrin Evans.
Veteran publicist and jazz lover Don Lucoff is the artistic director of the PDX Jazz Festival, and it was a pleasure to pick his brain as to the ins and outs of curating a financially solvent event. Podcast 527 features our conversation and wrap-up of the festival. Musical selections include a track from Portland native Esperanza Spalding’s new CD, “Fear the Funk” and John Coltrane’s classic “Alabama”.