Syracuse Jazz Fest brings ‘popular music’ back to Clinton Square after 20 years (photos)

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The 36th Syracuse Jazz Fest returned to downtown for the first time in 20 years Friday night. And Frank Malfitano, the festival’s founder and executive director, was overjoyed.

“I feel blessed to have lived long enough to see this day, it’s been a tough and challenging five years,” Malfitano said. “The festival is really a tradition in this city and it’s something that is loved.”

More than 1,000 people joined in Friday’s festivities, which included The Salt City Jazz Collection, Sheila Jordan Trio, David Sanborn Electric Band and headlining The Average White Band.

Sheila Jordan, known as 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 also received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Jazz Journalist Association after her performance.

The “93-year-old” artist said she wasn’t thinking about signing at her age, she was just letting the music flow.

“[Jazz music] it’s my life, it’s attached to my body, it’s my heart, my soul, my brain,” Jordan said. “I love music and will continue to sing it until I die.”

Jordan said jazz music has not been accepted as it should be and should be “supported and respected” more.

“It’s the only music America can call its own and I call it the son-in-law of American music because it’s never really been accepted,” Jordan said. “And I’m not talking about me, I’m talking about all those 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 all over the world. The city’s population was one of the most diverse in the South with people of African, French, West Indian, Italian, German, Mexican, and Indigenous ancestry, as well as English. African-American musical traditions mixed with others gradually built up jazz from a mixture of ragtime, marches, blues, and other genres of music.

“Jazz is the truth, jazz is the music of the people, it’s American heritage music brought to us by African Americans,” Malfitano said. “It’s an indigenous part of our culture, of our history. It’s people telling the truth through their instruments, and it’s a very special art form.

Syracuse locals Nathan Jones, a photographer and graphic designer, and Kelvin White, a practicing dentist with James Street Dental Services, sat next to each other at the festival. It was their first meeting.

White said it was good to be relieved from the pandemic and that jazz music evoked a sense of peace in him.

“Jazz is very relaxing, soothing and liberating,” White said.

Jones said it was great to be able to bond through a shared interest in music.

“When they first held Jazz Fest downtown, it was phenomenal because people came from all over – from out of state, from Canada, from the Netherlands – and you build a good relationship. This gentleman and I just met today,” Jones said, pointing to White. The two joked that they could be at the festival together next year.

The festival is a three night event. It started on Thursday with free performances by local and regional artists at popular bars and restaurants – The Fitz, Pastabilities, Modern Malt and more. – at Clinton and Armory plazas.

“The 20 clubs were packed, all the bands were beaming, the downtown area felt alive and you felt a real sense of community,” Malfitano said.

The festivities continue Saturday night 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.

Food and beverages will be available at KiKi’s Greek Food and Catering, Danny’s Steaks, Limp Lizard BBQ, It’s a Utica Thing and more.

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