On a quiet day in 1990, Bruce Labadie, veteran booker of the Mountain Winery, and the late Sammy Cohen, drummer, Metro columnist and union leader, walked together on a break from their shared fundraising work.
By the time they were done, the course of the arts in San Jose had been transformed.
“Sammy and I were walking around downtown San Jose,” recalled Labadie “and we go, ‘This place is so dead.’”
And then, the magic seed was planted. “‘We should enliven it. Let’s do a jazz festival.’”
“We were in the era of Bill Graham, and we didn’t want to go rock,” Labadie explained the choice. “We didn’t want to do country. So what else do you do, besides jazz, who nobody else was doing? We thought it might work.” (It did.)
According to Labadie, Metro’s very own Dan Pulcrano happened to pull up in his car at that exact moment, gave his blessing, and pledged his support.
The San Jose Jazz Festival was born. The first year was held in Plaza De Cesar Chavez and featured fusion on day one and straight-ahead jazz on day 2, said Labadie, who is the Artistic and Festival Director.
After following a similar curation formula—part tradition, part innovation— for the last thirty-three years, the San Jose Jazz (SJZ) SummerFest now feels as San Josean as orange sauce and burnt almond cake, with all the scrumptiousness that implies.
This weekend’s festival features 100 artists on nine stages; plus a pub crawl and several buskers. Performers range from Grammy winners to high school all-stars. SJZ cleverly takes advantage of local and rising talent as well as varied downtown spaces. The result is a mind-bending diversity of exceptional music in what feels like a block party.
“The reason that jazz is my favorite genre,” said Scott Fulton, Director of Special Projects at SJZ and curator of the innovative venues known as The Break Room and Boom Box, “is that it is so hard to define. The essence of jazz is that it is ever-changing. There’s a lot of ‘jazz purists’ that love the idea of and want to stick to straight-ahead jazz—“ (here he vocalized a perfect sss-ts-ts-sssst snare drum-esque straight-ahead beat, what you would expect to hear when you think of jazz).
“As a fairly young musician, I feel that’s so counter to what jazz ultimately is.”
The lineup and venues are a testament to Fulton’s description of jazz as ever-changing. Settings range from large outdoor stages, seated theater viewing, nightclubs, street corners and SJZ gem The Break Room (our very own “Tiny Desk Concert.”) The Break Room and other stages will offer quality live streams, an innovation that arose during the pandemic.
After saturating my brain with a playlist and videos of the performers and interviewing the curators, I can confidently say that this year’s lineup will both enliven and rock the city.
Trying to pick just a few artists to highlight is like trying to find a bejeweled needle in a stack of hay made from gold. When I try to write about one, it feels like I’m cheating on the others.
Bottom line, they all slap.
Represented are 24 jazz-related genres, carefully curated. One could take an entire group for the price of a Taylor Swift ticket.
50th anniversary of hip-hop
What is the Sugar Hill Gang, is hip-hop really that old? OG Big Daddy Kane headlines the main stage with expert rhymes and old-school beats. There are all sorts of hip-hop happenings on Friday, including visual art, dance and the legendary Murs. Insanely talented Chika Di combines afro, electronic, latin and pop, y esta colombiana raps en español como una jefa. Telmary, from Cuba, is so much more than a rapper; but also, an amazing spoken word artist. Both of these women will make you want to bailar.
As Fulton explained, “If you look at the great jazz musicians in all the different eras they were consistently switching up their styles and bands and going through different musical periods. They were collaborating with younger musicians who were pushing the forefront—resulting in a branching-off into these incredible arms of jazz unto themselves.”
Miles Davis, for example, collaborated with a young Herbie Hancock, who is now working with Thundercat, Lotus and Kendrick Lamar, said Fulton.
In the Break Room lineup alone, there is a huge variety of genres as well as genre-benders, like the highly anticipated W.I.T.C.H, who Fulton called “African Psychedelic Rock.”
No shade to standards or straight-ahead jazz. They’re all over the Fest, and always will be. If Jazz is a tree, with roots in early Black Spirituals, Blues and Gospel; a trunk made of straight-ahead jazz and branches of fusion and offshoots, then parts of the tree will fall back to earth and nourish the roots.
A DIY Experience
With four levels of access, patrons have a variety of choices–it’s possible to eat, drink and be merry, sit in silent awe, or dance into the night. Both planners and wanderers have plenty of music and activities to choose from. Staying in a hotel downtown will offer patrons easy access and an early start for the Gospel Brunch Sunday.
Latin Tropical Stage
Keeping the music fresh and diverse has drawn a younger crowd in recent years, said Betto Arcos, renowned music journalist, author and curator of the popular and free Latin Tropical Stage.
In a story by Arcos about headliner Cimafunk, he referenced the idea that when musicians come from one part of the world to another, they cross-pollinate music, creating a “hybrid fruit.” Cimafunk, an Afro Cuban genre-defying sensation is a pretty tasty hybrid.
When he brought up Cimafunk, we simultaneously said “OH. MY. GOD”—because yes—they are that good. His lineup at the Latin Tropical Stage features music that gets people dancing from Colombia, Cuba, Mexico, Florida, LA and local acts.
We Saw Them When
That “OH. MY. GOD” feeling will be everywhere at the fest, as curators focus on rising stars that might be new to patrons. Through the years, the Fest has featured many talents before they were huge. Fulton fondly recalls one year where a pre-fame Domi and JD Beck played the Boom Box, along with Sons of Kemet and San Jose-raised DJ and MC, the beloved Peanut Butter Wolf.
Diversity keeps the jazz ecosystem thriving, with performers of all ages from all over the world cross-pollinating jazz, afro cuban, funk, hip-hop, latin jazz, rhythm and blues, soul, folk, rock and roll and more. Up-and-comers go on to become greats, who nurture the next generation and in turn stay inspired.
The resultant energy achieves what Sammy Cohen and Bruce Labadie dreamed of three decades ago.
Enlivening the City
“San Jose comes alive,” with music and celebration, said Labadie,”that’s what I feel happens.” In the DTSJ urban setting, surrounding businesses participate in the festivities, bringing a much-needed economic boost to downtown.
He said that more people come to SJZ Summer Fest from out of town than from San Jose, and that there are 22 countries represented among the people who have bought the almost 2000 hotel rooms for this weekend.
The easily accessible urban setting makes San Jose ideal for a Jazz Festival. “The weather’s always great, and it’s easy to get around downtown, with plenty of parking on the weekend,” said Labadie.
“I love the spontaneity of what happens by my stage, and all over the festival,” said Arcos. “People are dancing. Groups of people gather, like 10 or 15 people get into a circle and they all do the same dance move.” Bay Area musicians tell the LA-based Arcos they like the friendly musical competition between the two regions.
“It makes everyone better.”