The Savannah Jazz Festival, now heading into its 39th year, has been a consistently popular cultural staple for the Savannah community.
Tens of thousands of music lovers fill up the lawn of Forsyth Park every year to hear a diverse lineup of world renowned musicians, but with a continuing global pandemic and the impossibility of large gatherings, was there ever a doubt that this year’s festival would even happen?
"That’s a hard ‘No’," said Paula Fogarty, Interim Executive Director of Savannah Jazz. "As an organization, it’s our charge to deliver a festival every year."
The board of directors of Savannah Jazz worked with city leadership to present an alternative plan that complied with the Savannah-Safe Pledge. With full support and funding from the city, the festival was rebranded the Savannah-Safe Jazz Festival 2020 and will feature 16 performances from the Ships of the Sea Museum in front of a small socially-distanced live audience.
All events will be live-streamed with some broadcasts on WSAV, Dick Broadcasting Radio stations, and the Savannah Jazz Website, You Tube Channel, and Facebook pages.
"Some words that are very vital to jazz come to mind during this whole process," explained Fogarty. "The first one is ‘improvisation.’ The next one is ‘collaboration.’ The way we were able to collaborate so quickly with some major partners was very heartening."
Part of the improvisational process for Savannah Jazz was quickly augmenting the festival line-up to meet the challenges of organizing a safe festival with top-tear talent.
"We had artists lined-up coming from all over — artists from Germany, and Los Angeles, and San Francisco," said Fogarty. "Because of our safety guidelines we can’t have artists who are flying in. We had to go back and hand select the A-list of regional jazz superstars.
"That’s going to be one of the distinguishing artistic factors of this year’s festival, that we have so many regional superstars. Artists are really hungry and this is what we’re here to do, to present world class music with world class artists."
The festival will kick off on Wednesday, Sept. 23 with a special live-stream of Clint Eastwood’s rare documentary, "Dave Brubeck: In His Own Sweet Way," to celebrate the jazz great’s 100th birthday. The film was only ever broadcast on BBC in the ‘90s so this will be the first time it has ever aired in the U.S.
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"Blues Night" on Thursday will feature Eric Culberson with special guest Dollette McDonald, who has performed with Sting and the Talking Heads.
"Latin and Classics" on Friday night will feature performances by Latin Caravan, and the Savannah Jazz Orchestra featuring Cynthia Utterbach.
"Spicy Jazz Saturday" is stacked with exciting performances by saxophonist Jazmine Ghent, winner of the 50th NAACP Image Awards’ Album of the Year, Buckwheat Zydeco, Jr. and the Ils Sont Partis Band from New Orleans, New York’s Emmet Cohen Trio, and Wycliffe Gordon, multiple recipient of Downbeat Magazine’s Best Trombone award.
"B-3 Sunday" will celebrate the unique sounding Hammond organ. The day’s line-up includes Brian Miller, Ike Stubblefield, who played organ with legends like George Benson, BB King, Al Green, and Eric Clapton, and New York’s best organist Pat Bianchi and his trio. Also on the bill are Dave Potter Quartet with legendary saxophonist Greg Tardy, Stephanie Nakasian, who has been called one of the world’s leading jazz singers, in front of the Savannah Jazz Orchestra All Stars, and finally, Grammy-award winning saxophonist David Sanchez, who was mentored by Dizzy Gillespie.
Since watching live in the park is not an option, there is a raffle for limited tickets available on savannahjazz.org. Six seatings of 25-30 audience members each are available over the course of four days.
"Because it is a random raffle the audience will reflect the diversity of our community," said Fogarty. "That’s one of my greatest thrills is looking out of the band shell at Forsyth Park and seeing every walk of life together, getting along peacefully through great music.
"The great news about this platform in this strange new world is last year we reached about 50,000 people in person and this year we’re going to reach hundreds of thousands of people world wide," Fogarty continued.
"It will be a great moment for the city of Savannah to show we are America’s hostess city."