The Savannah Music Festival: More Than Just A Festival

It may puzzle some that a city as small as Savannah could be home to a world famous music festival. But loyal listeners know this to be true, simply because the festival embraces music from every part of the world. In 2013 alone, artists from Mali, Singapore, Portugal, France, and more all came together to create a rare brew of performances for the ever-growing Savannah crowd. The organization is gearing up for its 25th anniversary falling on March 20th to April 5th of next year, and it’s said to be putting together a line-up that’s even more international than ever before.

While most music festivals cash in on bringing consistent genres of music together, the Savannah Music Festival branches out to bring every flavor of melody into the city: from twangy bluegrass to deep southern jazz, to timeless classical strings and spunky Creole dance music. In 2013, some of the highlighted bands were Joy Kills Sorrow, a young 5 piece group featuring a 2012 national mandolin champion; The Tedeschi Trucks Band, complete with hard bluesy guitars and a raging horn section; the quintessential southern duo of Emmylou Harris and Rodney Crowell; the classic Atlanta Symphony Orchestra; and the ever groovy, British trio including front man Richard Thompson. A refreshing new event was also added to this year’s festival at a brand new venue. Lil Wayne and the Same Ol’ Two Step turned up the heat at The Ships of the Sea Museum on MLK. The band filled the museum’s north garden with authentic Creole Zydeco dance music, transporting the audience back to the boggy streets of New Orleans. This show was a great example of how the Savannah Music Festival isn’t your run of the mill festival—it’s an entirely different animal; constantly growing and aware of what’s happening in the remote corners of the music world. The founders of the organization are always listening and traveling, shaking up clouds of spices and herbs to season our small port city to perfection. The festival is one of the few existing cross genre events in the world, and has become a hot bed of southern and international musical culture at the highest caliber.

However, the music isn’t the only diverse thing the festival has in store. The experience becomes even more unique through the careful selection of SMF venues sprawled all around the city—some are over hundreds of years old. There are still, of course, standard theaters and civic venues for big audiences, but for a select few shows, listeners can witness performances as they echo through intimate antique spaces or cathedral ceilings. In 2013, the venues included the beautiful Trustees Garden; The Episcopal Christ Church that resonated with rich vocal, organ, and chamber music; the Johnny Mercer Theater Civic Center; the ornate Lucas Theatre for the Arts, the Ships of the Sea North Garden that buzzed with high energy dance music; the Temple Mickve Israel; the Trinity United Methodist Church; and the deep red Trustees Theater, just right for classical strings. The distinct Savannah buildings add another layer of rich culture and history, elevating music into masterpieces and concerts into experiences. New venues are to be expected with the rapid increase of audiences flocking from all over the world, and we don’t predict the festival to stop growing anytime soon. Ticket sales for 2013 were at a record high for the 11th consecutive year, and the number of artists has tripled to nearly 100 strong in that same amount of time.

But like most great success stories, this too came from humble beginnings. The Savannah Music Festival first began as the Savannah OnStage International Arts Festival in 1990. It was originally created to bring music, film, and dance programs from around the world to Savannah locals, to draw in tourists from other cities, and promote a spread of southern culture. In its fourth year they launched a program called The American Tradition Vocal Competition, and due to its great success, the organization continued to focus more and more on its musical ventures. Then, nine years later in 2003, the organization’s changed their name to The Savannah Music Festival, and stuck to musical performances exclusively. Today it is the largest music festival in all of Georgia, and a great source of tourism and financial aid for the city—only surpassed by the festivities of Savannah’s blow out annual St. Patrick’s Day celebration.

While SMF helps Savannah financially, it is also deeply involved and dedicated to the Savannah community. Though the festival itself only lasts about 15 days a year, SMF uses other 350 to better the city through music education. Perhaps the biggest indicator of this is the Swing Central Jazz competition and workshop. In 2006, the Georgia Music Educators Association cooperated with SMF to bring bands from high schools all around the South East for a weekend-long competition and clinic. The students get the amazing opportunity to study under jazz masters such as Marcus Roberts, Jason Marsalis, and Wycliffe Gordon in preparation for an open air show (which in the past has taken place at one of Savannah’s most popular spots, City Market) for a chance to open for one of the selected line ups at the Lucas Theatre. The organization also hosts Acoustic music Seminars for young string players, a multitude of education series from master classes to stage shows for local savannah schools in conjunction with Gulfstream, and artist residencies from Project 440, Ensemble39, and The Dover Quartet.

The Savannah Music Festival is truly an organization apart. Forging bonds between creatives and enthusiasts, locals and tourists, lovers and listeners; it’s a thriving and constantly adapting presence within its community. And though the Savannah Music Festival is world famous today for its unique integration of bluegrass, jazz, and deep southern roots, it is forever searching for new ways to benefit, entertain, and culture their audience—and here in the port city we all know: it’s much more than just a festival.

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