The 36th Syracuse Jazz Fest returned downtown for the first time in 20 years on Friday evening. And Frank Malfitano, the festival’s founder and executive director, was overjoyed.
“I feel blessed that I lived long enough to see this day, it’s been a difficult and challenging five years,” Malfitano said. “The festival is really a tradition in this city and it’s something that’s beloved.”
More than 1,000 people joined in Friday’s festivities, which featured The Salt City Jazz Collection, Sheila Jordan Trio, David Sanborn Electric Band and headliner the Average White Band.
Sheila Jordan, known as the NEA Jazz Master, a legendary American jazz singer and songwriter who pioneered the bebop and scat jazz singing style, sang and improvised lyrics during her performance.
She was also presented the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Jazz Journalist Association after her performance.
The 93 “years-young” artist said she doesn’t think about signing at her age, she just lets the music flow.
“[Jazz music] is my life, it’s attached to my body, it’s my heart, my soul, my brain,” Jordan said. “I love the music and I’ll keep singing it until I die.”
Jordan said jazz music hasn’t been accepted the way it should, and that it should be “supported and respected” more.
“It’s the one music America can call its own and I call it the step child of American music because it’s never really been accepted,” Jordan said. “And I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about all these great players like Charlie Parker, Miles Davis, Bill Evans and Buck Powell.”
Jazz originated in the late-19th to early-20th century in New Orleans, where people came from around the world. The city’s population was one of the most diverse in the South with people of African, French, Caribbean, Italian, German, Mexican, and Indigenous heritage, as well as English. African-American musical traditions mixed with others gradually constructed jazz from a blend of ragtime, marches, blues, and other kinds of music.
“Jazz is the truth, jazz is the people’s music, it is American heritage music that was brought to us by African Americans,” Malfitano said. “It is an indigenous part of our culture, our history. It is people speaking truth through their instruments, and it’s a a very special art form.”
Syracuse locals Nathan Jones, a photographer and graphic designer, and Kelvin White, a practicing dentist at James Street Dental Services, sat next to each other at the festival. It was their first time meeting.
White said it’s good to get a relief from the pandemic and that jazz music evokes a peaceful feeling for him.
“Jazz is very relaxing, calming, and freeing,” White said.
Jones said it’s great to be able to make connections through shared interest in music.
“When they first had Jazz Fest downtown, it was phenomenal because people came from all over – out of state, Canada, the Netherlands – and you build a nice rapport. Me and this gentleman just met today,” Jones said pointing to White. The two joked that they may be at the festival together next year.
The festival is a three-night event. It started Thursday with free performances by local and regional acts in popular bars and restaurants — The Fitz, Pastabilities, Modern Malt, and more — throughout Clinton and Armory Squares.
“All 20 clubs were packed, all of the bands were beaming, downtown felt alive and you felt a real sense of community,” Malfitano said.
The festivities will continue Saturday evening at 4 p.m. with performances by the Joey DeFrancesco Trio, The Urban Knights, Boney James and Nathan Williams and The Zydeco Cha Cha’s. All shows are free to attend.
Food and beverages will be available from KiKi’s Greek Food and Catering, Danny’s Steaks, Limp Lizard BBQ, It’s a Utica Thing and more.
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