The annual Syracuse Jazz Fest is a bittersweet time for me. I love that I can escape for three days of free jazz performed by major acts, but I also listen missing desparately, if without regret, the full-time music career I left behind to pursue first business and then writing and teaching.
My dad and I used to make it our signature annual father/son event, as among our very different interests, we do share a love of jazz—Dad more the light commercial styles of Kenny G and Chuck Mangione, me adding to those a host of more in depth and experimental musicians, but still, a true shared passion. My love of music even comes from my not-at-all musically talented dad, as I grew up listening constantly to his ever growing record collection, a collection inspired jointly by his love of music and the constant annoyance of the tinnitus that drove him to keep music playing. A few years ago, however, when my dad remarried after my mom’s death, his new partner gradually pried him in the direction of her own interests and family. I’m at least glad he’s happy.
The “Jazz” fest has also increasingly drifted at times to more of a rock fest—also fine, but lowering my interest a notch or two (so much so that I didn’t bother braving the hour long trip, parking, or crowds for the acts advertised). Still, it’s free, and when at all feasible, I attend.
A few years back, the Jazz Fest moved from downtown—hot, crowded, sun-beaten asphalt, poor sightlines, questionable parking—to Onondaga Community College just outside the city, with lots of space, grass, breezes (it’s on a hilltop), plenty of parking, much better facilities (i.e., restrooms). I prefer it, but many people complained, preferring the city environment, particularly the proximity to clubs. In response, a separate festival arose, Jazz in the City, bringing in some excellent artists. For me, however, hot humid weather, crowds on blacktop, and performances that start as late as 10 p.m. when I’ve still got a long drive home more often than not weighs against attending. (I’ve often wondered why restaurant/bar/club owners haven’t realized a lot of music lovers would joyfully attend far more events if those performances started at 7 or 8 p.m., a much better match for most people’s schedules and lifestyles.)
The hilltop view at Jazz Fest has it’s problems. For whatever reason, for example, a number of people feel this is an optimal time for cigars. Cigarette smoke travels badly enough, but one cigar can take out dozens of people while the smoker blithely practices his rights. Reminds me of Steve Martin’s joke: “Mind if I smoke?” “Not at all—mind if I fart?”
The sound is terrible, run by people used to producing rock acts, and not well, creating a solid mass of sound with nothing distinguishable (Jazz in the City, run by professional musicians, hires more astute sound men). I run across a colleague, attending with a friend who remembers me from high school, her their significant others, and another friend with his young daughter, a child who fusses, up too late already after a long day. The friend, a sound man, gets into a discussion with me about the festival’s sound. He thinks it’s fine, but points out it will improve with the final act of the night, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, as they bring their own engineer to run sound. I think that rather makes my point, but keep it to myself.
Our discussion morphs into the music and the audience. A Frank Zappa tribute big band takes the stage—lots of enthusiasm, lots of notes, lots of skill, but they just aren’t selling it well. I question the value, especially as a jazz musician, of performing essentially as a juke box. My “expert” friend notes that musicians need to realize that people come to concerts to “shake their ass.” I drop the subject. His daughter falls asleep on my foot. We cover her with her cloak.
Bela Fleck takes the stage, and EVERYTHING is different. The music is interesting, engaging—think Earl Scruggs meets Mahavishnu Orchestra, but with ever-evolving organic musical surprises. The sound is EXCELLENT—every instrument, every note crystal clear. No problem selling these pieces either. Top performers at the top of their form.
A young guy sits nearby, yelling on his cell phone during the show. “The fence! We’re over by the fence!” This goes on for 15 minutes. Other than that, though, I’m happy—I’m hearing what I came to hear. After the show, as fireworks start, he cries out, “My wedding ring! I lost my wedding ring!” We help look. “It’s silver!” he says. Someone finds it. I wonder just how the ring “got loose.” No wife is likely to buy that story. I don’t buy it either.
The next day I stopped by a booth for a chicken parm and some salt potatoes on the way for a spot of grass to sit. “Where did you get that sandwich?” asked a young woman in jeans and a T-shirt stretched out on the grass next to me. I explained. “Watch my purse?” she asked, and went in quest of her own sandwich. Interesting, isn’t it? We trust complete strangers to guard our stuff. She returned with her sandwich, introduced herself as Jo, and we chatted about how my girl, catherine, was temporarily stuck in Canada over immigration details.
“How did you meet?” she asked, and I gave an abridged version of our encounters on a discussion board that gradually led to emails and phone calls and finally her coming here to live with me. Jo was interested, turns out, because her own ex-boyfriend, dumped after long abuse of alcohol among other problems, left her wondering how she’d meet someone else. Cloudy skies turned to sprinkles to pouring rain, and cotton clad Jo retreated to her car for good, while I retrieve my umbrella and a blanket from mine.
The music was a repeat of the previous day—lots of notes played by skillful musicians who couldn’t sell what they were playing, further hindered by the pathetic wall-of-sound mix. And then—the final act, Dave Brubeck. “Come on up, fill these seats,” the promoter offered, indicating the rows and rows of empty chairs they always save for sponsors. “Dave Brubeck doesn’t play to empty seats.”
The wait in the cold was worth it. The sound was spectacular, and the playing was beyond masterful. Lots of notes, yes, but this time they were understated, just color, not flash. Musicians in control. Musicians whose craft is second nature. I sat in the cold, damp blanket wrapped around my wet clothes, enthralled. Worth the wait.
I had a feeling I should have stayed home the third day. I was tired, and the line up wasn’t really rock. Still, the headliner was Aretha Franklin, so I braved the trip once more.
This crowd was completely different from people the previous two days. Constant talking, people continually crowded in front of others, not a moments’ peace, just constant annoyance. Two young women, Cat and Cody, settled next to my spot, while they pretended not to notice the guy on the other side of them staring to the point of drooling. Thinking of Jo’s questions, I asked the girls their thoughts. “I’m looking around here,” I said, “and I see lots of women without rings sitting without men. Certainly any reasonable, nice, patient guy with a few guts should be able to meet women!” Cat agreed, and we shared theories, and well as my story about catherine, her stories about her boyfriend, Aaron.
Another tribute band, this time to Jaco Pastorius. Lots of talented bass players taking turns at Jaco’s role, but clearly they and the band we’re used to each other. Still, I love that music, and the bassists included Will Lee (from David Letterman’s band), so that was fun, even if most of the time I could mainly hear people describing their “expertise” about music, making jokes about the bombings in London (!), complaining about the French (?), and other enlightening discourse during the show.
Finally, Aretha Franklin. But we may as well have been in a bar. Everyone talking. People standing so that seeing the stage was difficult. And the songs—back to the juke box, along with long complaints from Aretha about the cold in particular. Come to think of it, that’s been a pattern with divas at the Jazz Fest—Nancy Wilson was the worst. Sang beautifully, bitched just as much. But I can say I’ve seen Aretha Franklin live. And seen is probably a better description than heard.
You can never tell, though. One year, back down in the city, Diana Krall had 50,000 people virtually silent, mesmerized. I particularly remember a cover of Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You” that had me in tears. Now that show was worth some blacktop and poor parking.