The Savannah Jazz Festival returns Sept. 23-29 for another year of great jazz presented to the general public for free.

Close to four decades ago, bassist Ben Tucker and trombonist Teddy Adams were teaching a class on jazz at Savannah State University. From the class, a listening group formed and from that group came the Coastal Jazz Association and eventually, the Savannah Jazz Festival.

Emerging from humble, honest beginnings, the city’s most diverse and entirely free week-long festival will celebrate its 37th year with an all-star lineup of jazz musicians, a number of unique concerts and plenty of local favorites.

 

Chuck Leavell (Rolling Stones, Allman Brothers Band), Bernie Williams (former New York Yankees centerfielder), Grammy-nominated Jane Bunnett and Maqueque, six-time Emmy-winning composer Peter Fish and Eric Gales (Lauren Hill, Carlos Santana) are some of the touring names gracing the marquee this year, peppered among the usual pick of exceptional acts like Savannah’s Eric Culberson, U.S. Army MCE Band and the Savannah Jazz Hall of Fame Band.

The Savannah Jazz Festival is presented in conjunction with the city of Savannah each year for free. The major concerts for the week-long festival take place in Forsyth Park, with others dotting a number of different venues around the Savannah Historic District.

Over the last three decades, the festival has always brought in big names, as it's waxed and waned from an eight-day schedule to smaller renditions and back to a week-long affair. In recent history, the festival is back on the upswing after installing a new part-time executive director, Paula Fogarty, about 19 months ago.

“It’s really easy to trace the growth back a couple of years to when we brought Paula Fogarty on board and created a part-time executive director position, which will eventually be a full-time position,” Coastal Jazz Association President and Benedetto Guitars CEO Howard Paul said. “For 37 years, we’ve been doing this festival with all volunteers. A volunteer board means some retired people, some working people, some part-time residents. As a result, there’s no continuity through the course of the year.

“There’s not one phone people can call. There’s no office. There’s no point of contact that remains the same for hotels, or city services or musicians, and so having a permanent executive director gives us the opportunity to funnel everything into one person. Which allows us to raise more money, get more grants, talk to more potential venues and eventually bring in bigger artists.”

Festival co-founder Adams agrees that the staff addition will help the event grow.

“The first festival we gave, although it was at Grayson Stadium, we had quite a lineup,” Adams said. “Since then, we’ve brought almost anyone that’s anyone in jazz here. You call the names, with the exception of a few, and we’ve had them. We’ve had the icons of modern jazz and no one has ever paid a penny to see them. We’ve brought everything from fusion to smooth to avant garde. We haven’t barred anything.

“[Fogarty] brings a lot to the table,” Adams continued. “She has a lot of savvy about dealing with people and raising funds. Hopefully, Paula can help us restore the strength we once had in the organization.”

 

This year, the festival will move into Ships of the Sea Maritime Museum for the first time. In a co-sponsored concert with the Metropolitan Savannah Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, the Savannah Jazz Festival will present a Latin dance party in the museum’s popular event space, featuring a 10-piece salsa Afro-Cuban orchestra.

“This is the first year in a very long relationship that we are making with the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce,” Fogarty said. “They have asked to sponsor a Latin dance night every year at the festival going forward. The history of jazz in Latin America is extremely rich. The influence of Latin culture on jazz is huge.”

The Savannah Jazz Festival from its inception has been an all-inclusive, diverse event featuring all communities of Savannah enjoying music in one place, together, and by design. Adams and Tucker set the foundation of the Coastal Jazz Association and festival to be diverse, before that word became ubiquitous.

“As far as racially, I am sure it’s the most diverse in the city, and 37 festivals without having any kind of disturbance or incident,” Adams said. “People come to enjoy the music and have fun and that’s what they do.”