SHOPFRONTS may change, streets widen, and populations fluctuate as students and tourists enter and exit the city, but Savannah is fortunate to enjoy a constant: the annual Savannah Jazz Festival.
For 35 years, the Coastal Jazz Association has thrown a free cultural celebration for everyone, drawing in young folks, seasoned jazz fans, and enthusiasts from miles around for a week of musical excitement.
At the end of a record-setting-hot summer, pack a picnic, round up some friends, and feel the breeze on your skin as world-class jazz bathes the Forsyth Park lawn. Lace up your walking shoes and stroll to downtown establishments like Hotel Indigo, Jazz’d Tapas Bar, and Congregation Mickve Israel to hear a variety of inspired sounds.
Due to funding, last year’s park festivities were limited to one day, with the majority of the festival’s shows happening in venues like Rancho Alegre Cuban Restaurant and Johnny Harris Restaurant.
Those intimate indoor concerts are a festival tradition, but this year, the Festival extends to three days in Forsyth Park. Now, attendees can savor the magic of a full weekend of free music in the picturesque park.
“This is the year of restructuring,” says Paula Fogarty, Savannah Jazz Festival chair. “And next year promises to be even bigger and better. Last year, we did one night in the park. We did what we had to do to get super-healthy.”
“We’re the only nonprofit organization that puts on a festival in Savannah,” she continues. “The Jazz Festival really helps improve the quality of life in our community, brings together people of all races and cultures and classes, and that’s something we understand. We need that now more than ever in this weirdly disparate time.”
2016’s lineup honors jazz tradition while welcoming an up-and-coming generation of musicians.
“We are adding on many new acts, and many of them have never been part of a festival,” Fogarty shares. “We’ve got some new blood, there’s the passing the torch to the next generation, and that’s very much the spirit and one of the themes in this year’s festival: the next generation of jazz, and keeping the tradition and art form alive.”
King Solomon Hicks is a leader of youthful jazz. At just 21 years old, Hicks has been engrossed in the music business since he entered teendom, performing with a 13-piece band at Harlem’s The Cotton Club. Now, he’s a New York staple who can be caught playing guitar at places like B.B. King’s, The Garage, Ginny’s Supper Club, and Harlem Arts Alliance events. Schooled in jazz, classical, and Afro-Cuban guitar at Harlem’s School of the Arts, Hicks has shared the stage and worked with the likes of Tony Bennett, Ne-Yo, the B.B. King Blues Band, and more. He headlines Blues Night in the park on Thursday.
Sax player Sonny Fortune will perform his original compositions with his Quartet. A jazz juggernaut in the New York scene of the ‘60s-‘70s, Fortune has recorded with Dizzy Gillespie, George Benson, and more.
Don Braden, a festival headliner, will bring his jazz tenor saxophone skills to the stage. He’s grown now, but the 52-year-old began his career when he was just 15. Since, he’s acted as a sideman for greats like Betty Carter, Wynton Marsalis, Freddie Hubbard, and others. Praised for his blend of precise playing and imaginative stylings, his performance with the undergraduates of University of North Florida Jazz Ensemble #1 will be a festival highlight.
Six-time Emmy-winning composer and keyboard player Peter Fish will bring Peter Fish Group to the stage for some funk fun in the vein of Herbie Hancock.
The incomparable Dave Stryker, jazz guitarist and composer, has released 26 CDs as a band leader and was called “one of the most distinctive guitarists to come along in recent years” by the Village Voice. With blues and soul influences, Stryker learned to play guitar by listening to records as a kid. He continues to be a prolific leader of the scene.
Guitarist Yotam Silberstein makes his Savannah Jazz Festival debut this year. A graduate of The New School, the Tel Aviv native has collaborated with the likes of James Moody, Paquito D’Rivera, Roy Hargrove, and the Dizzy Gillespie Alumni All Stars.
Audiences can welcome a fellow Georgian when Audrey Shakir, “Atlanta’s First Lady of Jazz” makes her appearance. With a style often compared to Ella Fitzgerald, Shakir is a heralded bebop singer with a vibrant spirit and stage presence. She’ll fron tthe Savannah Jazz Orchestra in Forsyth on Saturday.
Barry Greene Quartet showcases guitarist Greene’s incredible skills. A player as well as a teacher, he proudly plays Savannah-made Benedetto guitars.
Charleston Latin Jazz Collective features seven leading musicians and is guaranteed to get the crowd moving.
Enjoy the compelling stylings of two military bands. Fort Benning’s U.S. Army Maneuver Center of Excellent Stage Band (283rd Army Band) accomplices over 400 missions per year, entertaining service men and women and civilians alike. Parris Island Marine Corps Band have earned the Col. G. Howard Citation of Musical Excellence for Military Concert Bands.
Regular festival favorite Eric Culberson Band keeps it local with Southern-fried blues, and Savannah’s youth will shine in the Future of Jazz Band under the leadership of world-renowned trombonist and Savannah native Teddy Adams.
“They are adorable: 15 years old and totally amazing!” praises Fogarty.
Cultivating young talent is a year-round mission for Coastal Jazz Association.
“One way we keep jazz alive is that we give stipends and scholarships to our area schools: Savannah Country Day, Savannah Arts Academy, Georgia Southern, and so forth,” Fogarty explains. “We want to sponsor the next generation.”
The Jazz Festival runs on the support of donors, and anyone can make a donation to keep the festival alive.
“For the first time ever, we have a Circle of Friends tent for sponsors and special patrons in the park,” Fogarty explains. “Anyone can join! We’re trying to make it a special experience for our sponsors.”
First-timers and Jazz Festival regulars will revel in all this year has to offer, and the Association couldn’t be more excited for the celebration to keep growing.
“It’s a wild variety pack, and a great mix,” says Fogarty of this year’s offerings. “It’s straight-up jazz—and that’s something that distinguishes us. We’re not a smooth jazz festival—we are straight-up jazz!”