San Jose Jazz Summer Fest: In the Pocket at 30

4 min
Funky Meters perform for a packed Main Stage audience during the 2016 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Photo: Courtesy of Jerome Brunet)

This weekend, an estimated 40,000 people will descend on downtown San Jose for the 30th anniversary of the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (And yes, extra security is expected.)

As you might expect, the original ambition was decidedly more modest in 1990. So says Artistic & Festival Director Bruce Labadie, there at the creation: "We decided to have it free and outdoors and, basically, was going to be made successful by selling beer."

Of course, a few sponsorship deals helped, as did careful selection of eight headliners, including Bobby Hutcherson, Freddie Hubbard, and Poncho Sánchez. "10,000 people showed up over two days. It was amazing. So we knew it was going to be successful from the beginning."

30 years later, the Summer Fest is much bigger: 14 stages instead of two, 150 acts, or so, instead of eight. But also, the organization itself is much bigger than its annual summer fest.

"There's really nothing else like it in the Bay Area," says jazz writer Andy Gilbert, who's covered the organization for KQED over many years. "This takes over downtown San Jose, around the Plaza de Cesar Chavez. You've got outdoor stages. It's a huge street party, with fantastic music."

Dee Dee Bridgewater headlined the 2001 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.
Dee Dee Bridgewater headlined the 2001 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Photo: Courtesy of Andy Nozaka)

"We're also active year round. We do a couple hundred performances throughout all of San Jose throughout the year. We also do a Winter Fest and then we're active in a lot of San Jose schools with different music education programs," said Executive Director Brendan Rawson.

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Marketing Director Massimo Chisessi adds, "San Jose Jazz has nurtured a local ecology of musicians here, through jams year-round. We also bring them work, gigs at local restaurants. One of the results is there's a lot more interest now in live music (in downtown San Jose) than there was 30 years ago."

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Rawson estimates half of the Summer Fest's audience is local to Silicon Valley. The other half is split between the greater Bay Area and the world beyond, stretching as far afield as Los Angeles, Chicago and Atlanta.

Full disclosure: I grew up in a family full of talented jazz composers, and I love jazz. But like a lot of musical traditions, jazz’s audience is growing frailer and paler, and it’s dropped off the radio dial in many cities.

So I had to ask, how has San Jose Jazz survived and thrived? Short answer: like most jazz festivals, with a definition of jazz much more expansive than what insiders call “straight-ahead.” That, along with smooth jazz,  makes up only 20 percent of what’s on the roster of San Jose Jazz today. The rest represents gospel, blues, funk, soul, hip hop, R&B, and of course, lots of salsa.

Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue during the 2011 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.
Trombone Shorty and Orleans Avenue during the 2011 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Photo: Courtesy of Bruce Fram)

"There’s nothing like seeing a band live onstage, because it's infectious, it's contagious, it's … it's music that you want to dance to!" said Betto Arcos of KPCC in Los Angeles, one of a host of curators who bring specialized rolodexes with them, along with bigger, broader audiences from the Bay Area and beyond.

"This year we're bringing a band from Columbia (Orquesta La 33). This is like the top salsa band from Colombia has come into perform to the Jazz Fest," Arcos adds.

Gilbert says San Jose Jazz's commitment to Latin music has been genuine since the beginning. "Showing how that is woven in to the fabric of jazz. This year is no different."

Labadie say the audiences who come to San Jose Jazz come with big, broad musical appetites, keen to take in the unfamiliar and cheer on the young and the local. Why not, when about 40 percent of music is free?

Jazz is roots music

"There’s a lot of these young artists that come of age in a hip hop generation, but they're incredibly well-trained jazz artists, and you're seeing them sort of in sort of informing and shaping a lot of popular music today," Rawson says.

It’s fair to say San Jose Jazz has helped to “inform and shape” by giving an early chance to musicians coming up. Labadie has a lot of stories along these lines...

John Santos with the Machete Ensemble at the 2002 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest.
John Santos with the Machete Ensemble at the 2002 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. (Photo: Courtesy of Andy Nozaka)

"Years ago, we had the Lulu Washington Dance Company, and the guy that promotes it, the husband of Lulu Washington, said, ‘Oh, my nephew is really a good player!’ I go, ‘Okay, whatever.' Then I open Rolling Stone and there he was. Kamasi Washington. He didn't have an agent. We paid him a little bit of money, and then he was charging $50,000 right after that."

"Same with Trombone Shorty, who we found. You know, played at the main stage, and became unaffordable a couple of years after we had him."

Like anybody else, the organizers are partial to headliners. Rawson's favorite? "I’m really excited that we're having Dianne Reeves back. She was named an NEA Jazz Master last year. She was with us in our second year of the festival. She's this will be her fourth time appearing with us, and it's always there's really a sense of almost homecoming for a lot of our folks that come each year, and she's just outstanding."

San Jose Jazz doesn’t typically have performance recording rights. The local radio station KCSM broadcasts some of the music live, and they do run a highlight show the following spring. There’s also some live streaming. But generally, you have to be in San Jose to experience Summer Fest in all its multi-faceted, musical glory.

The San Jose Jazz Summer Fest runs August 9-11, 2019. For more information, click here.

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