Rebirth of the Cool

Tucson’s very own jazz fest continues to rise

Back for its third year, the Tucson Jazz Festival has locked down big-name artists yet again, delivering a packed 11 days of music for locals and visitors alike. 

If the first two years were about the Tucson Jazz Festival making a name for itself—securing mighty Burt Bacharach as the inaugural year headliner didn't hurt—this 2017 version is about putting together the finest, most versatile lineup yet.

With a dozen performances featuring local and national acts—including festival headliners and NEA Jazz Masters George Benson and Dee Dee Bridgewater, rising star saxophonist Kamasi Washington (read the feature story in this week's issue) and soul-funk-jazz legends Tower of Power—the Tucson Jazz Festival is curated for a broad appeal, says Yvonne Ervin, executive director of Jazz in January, the nonprofit behind the festival. 

Patterned after the Portland Jazz Festival in terms of length, scope and variety, the Tucson Jazz Festival is also scheduled to capitalize on the mild January weather in Tucson to draw visitors from across the country. Thus far, it's working well from a tourism perspective, Ervin says. The 2015 festival drew 10,000 people over 13 days, 28 percent from out of town, while last year's numbers grew to 18,000 people, with 35 percent coming from out of town. 

One of the festival's centerpieces is the free, all-day Martin Luther King Day celebration on Jan. 16, sponsored by Rio Nuevo. From 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., jazz will enliven downtown, with two outdoor stages on Fifth Avenue and a half dozen indoor venues, primarily on Congress Street. 

"That's something we have that Portland will never have, a daylong outdoor jazz festival in January," Ervin says. "It's our gift to the city."

Ervin ran the Tucson Jazz Society during the 1980s and 1990s, building it into the largest in the country, with 2,400 members, says the blossoming of downtown in recent years makes this a perfect time for the festival. And, she says, the festival proves that live jazz has a sizeable audience locally. 

"I try to come up with a balance, so we have something for everyone," Ervin says. "A big part of what I'm trying to do is to get and to keep young people interested. We have a great jazz program at the U of A and the No. 1 high school jazz program in the country. Just mixing it up by having younger and older generations playing together is a big part of enhancing the audience." 

Ervin works especially to bring younger and female jazz artists to the festival, giving it a fresh lineup, while still reeling in major stars. Spreading the festival out over a week and a half gives the opportunity for more versatility, while also creating more entry points for potential fans. Booking the festival and scouting potential talent is a year-round endeavor for Ervin. 

"First, I go to see who are partners are bringing in. UA Presents books further out than we do, and I work very closely with the symphony. I go to other jazz festivals and I go back to New York a lot," she says. "I've been in the jazz business for over 30 years. I know the artists, and because I have this great network, it helps me know the next big thing." 

Ervin points to Snarky Puppy and Lizz Wright as two artists who performed at the jazz festival last year, shortly before gaining greater stature nationally, while the up-and-coming star of this year's lineup is Kamasi Washington. 

"Bringing in newer artists, like Kamasi Washington and Snarky Puppy, brings in younger people. What I also try to do is have younger people opening for the big-name artists, especially our local kids done good," Ervin says. 

Among the locals holding prime festival slots are the Tucson Jazz Institute Ellington Band, perennially among the top high school big bands in the country, opening for Dee Dee Bridgewater Jan. 20 at the Fox Theatre, and Tucson Jazz Institute alumnus Alex Weitz performing an album release show on Jan. 13 at Club Congress. 

For her part, Ervin says she's most excited about Bridgewater's performance. 

"I brought Dee Dee to town back in 1993 to perform at St. Phillips Plaza in a series I produced for the Tucson Jazz Society," says Ervin, who had a long-running jazz column for the Tucson Weekly. "We hit it off and I had a great time. I've always been a huge fan of her versatility and her musicianship. She's an amazing artist. There's a lot of history here and it's fun to bring these people back to play a huge jazz festival." 

Bridgewater, who won a Tony Award in 1975 for her portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in the Broadway musical The Wiz, is part of the 2017 class of Jazz Masters, a lifetime honor given every year since 1982 by the National Endowment for the Arts. Benson is a ten-time Grammy winner, a super versatile guitarist, vocalist and songwriter and song interpreter. His 1976 Breezin' is the first jazz record hit platinum sales, and sold in the millions.

Other featured acts include vocalist Storm Large of Pink Martini, performing Jan. 20 at the Fox Theatre; guitarist and vocalist John Pizzarelli, performing with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra on Jan. 14 and 15 at the Tucson Convention Center Music Hall; the Anat Cohen and Howard Alden Duo, with UA Jazz Ensemble opening, on Jan. 17 at Crowder Hall; pianist and vocalist Armen Donelian, performing Jan. 18 at the Scottish Rite Temple; Dixieland Jazz Brunch with The Road Runners on Jan. 22 at Hilton El Conquistador; and Howe Gelb's new Future Standards trio, performing Jan. 22 at Club Congress.

Already at work on the 2018 lineup, Ervin says she'd like to build the audience to the point that the festival can have multiple shows each night. The success of such a large-scale festival depends on the volunteers and sponsors, she says. HSL Properties signed on as title sponsor for the first year and even before that festival kicked off, committed to another five years as title sponsor. 

"One of the big parts of this festival and what's made it so successful is the sponsorships," Ervin says. "When we first started going to talk to people, everybody said yes. I couldn't believe it. I've been really astounded, impressed, and happy with all the support the local business community has given us."

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