It has been said in many circles that jazz is America’s greatest gift to the world. This combination of African syncopations and European harmony first sprung up in the Deep South, and has now spread all over the world. There are few things that Americans can truly call something all their own, but fortunately, jazz is one of those few things. Here in Savannah, we keep the tradition alive with the Savannah Jazz Festival, held annually in late September. During that week the historic squares are filled with far off echoes of brass and strings, and when night falls—the show really get going.
The events are always free and open to the public, and each one is as authentic as the next, bringing audiences back into the bubbling beats of the early nineteen hundreds. The festival showcases a wide range of talents and groups: from orchestras to trios to quintets, from professionals to college ensembles, and ragtime to Latin to bebop styles. There are also shows appropriate for all ages: special concerts held for children, and late night jam sessions perfect for an adult’s night out. Some of the big names that headlined the festival in the past were Tom Scott, Wycliffe Gordon, and Andreas Varady: Tom Scott has been backing bands for musical geniuses like Joni Mitchell, The Blues Brothers, and Paul McCartney; Wycliffe Gordon is a world renowned jazz trombonist though also has a wide range of instrument specialties in his arsenal; and Andreas Varady has been a Slovakian guitar prodigy since the age of four. All these artists were not only drawn to Savannah, but were very enthusiastic to participate in our unique festival. But even if you’re not jazz-savvy, fear not. The festival brings together some of the world’s greatest names and talents in the genre of jazz, all while breaking down the boundaries between performers, aficionados, and simple listeners. It’s everyone’s game here.
The Coastal Jazz Association holds the Savannah Jazz Festival annually, and has been in existence since the early eighties. It first began when eight lovers of jazz (Judy Lancaster, Isadore Karpf, Bruce Spradley, Randy Reese, Teddy Adams, and Tom and Connie Glasser) attended a Jazz appreciation course run by Ben Tucker, a bassist at Savannah State College (now known as Savannah State University). When the group left their very last class all at a loss of what to do next, they decided to go out to lunch. By the end of this lunch they created a jazz association. They voted Tom Glasser as the first president, and Connie Glasser as the first treasurer. The group quickly gained members and began to round up talent from the coastal area. The first festival was held on October 1st, 1983, at the Grayson Stadium. The first artists showcased were Ken Palmer, Terri Rini, Ben Tucker, Pat Hill, and more. Since then, the CJA has gone on to put together more than 32 festivals, and the popularity has spread like wildfire. In addition to the festival, The Coastal Jazz Association also holds monthly concerts year round, (often at the Westin just across the Savannah River) has become very involved with Georgia’s music education programs, offer scholarships to young musicians, and partner with many businesses for the festival and other events.
But what makes the Jazz festival really special is the whole unique Savannah experience. The various venues for the festival are scattered around the city, giving each concert an authentic southern setting, just like the genre intended. The venues include the covered bandshell in Forsyth Park, The Rose House, and the Habersham Village Shops. Forsyth Park is the main venue for the festival. Located between Drayton and Whitaker Street within walking distance of most hotels and restaurants, the east end of the park fills up quickly. Towering trees and languishing Spanish moss surround the listeners while the swing notes and jazzy rhythms echo through Savannah. At night, neon lights illuminate the bandshell and the faces of the audience. The air is still warm and people dance in the grass barefoot, drinking and laughing late into the night. Ringing brass and deep strings and crooning voices can be heard from the other end of the city—it truly is a festive atmosphere. However, not to be forgotten, there are smaller venues that have just as much appeal. The Rose House Restaurant is the newest venue in the line up, opening in March of 2013—and it certainly is appropriate. The building, located on the East end of Broughton Street, is a restored theater with the bright marquee still intact above the doors. However the interior of the space encapsulates jazz as well, with loose oil paintings of brass wielding masters covering the walls and loud patterns blaring like trumpets. The concerts at Habersham Village take place in the parking lot underneath tall white tents, and all spectators are encouraged to bring their own chairs for a great seat by the stage. There are also occasionally concerts at other restaurants as well, and the venues are always switching for a much appreciated change of scene. In the past a clean white tent was pitched next to Blowin’ Smoke barbecue joint on MLK. The gray smoke from the grills filtered through the deep blue lights on the stage, and rows of chairs were set up in front of the bands that seemed completely at ease with their instruments. The only thing better than the music was the smell in the air.
So if you’re heading to Savannah near the end of September and you’d like nothing more than to listen to some smooth notes and celebrate the end of summer, look no further. The Savannah Jazz Festival is always free, and it’s the most accessible event for jazz in the southeast. It truly brings all citizens together: “Rich and poor, black and white, performers and non-performers” –we can all just kick back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of America’s “own and only indigenous art form: JAZZ.”