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Syracuse Jazz Fest Returns

The 36th edition of Syracuse Jazz Fest – Presented by Amazon will be returning
to Downtown Syracuse this June 23-25 for the first time in 20 years. The festival was last held in Clinton Square in 2000, when headliners Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Pete Fountain and Diana Krall smashed all previous records for an event in the Square, establishing a modern era attendance record that still stands today.

According to festival organizers, 20 Syracuse-based jazz groups will be showcased
at 20 different venues throughout downtown. “The Syracuse jazz scene has so much incredible talent, we wanted to do everything we could this year to showcase our homegrown stars at Jazz Fest 36 for all of the out-of-town visitors and guests who will be coming in from all over the US and Canada,” said festival director Frank Malfitano.

“Syracuse has had so many great jazz musicians and artists over the years, and they all deserve to be seen and heard by a wider audience. With more than 100 Syracuse jazz artists appearing on our stages and thousands of visitors expected to attend, this year’s programming may prove to be our finest ever.” he continues.

According to Malfitano, participating opening night venues include the newly-reopened Press Room Pub, Pastabilities, The Fitz, Mulrooney’s, Benjamin’s on Franklin, The Clinton Street Pub, Saltine Warrior, Tasting Room at Epicuse, Modern Malt, The Gilded Club, Kitty Hoynes, Funk ‘n’ Waffles, Wunderbar, The Weighlock Lounge, Redfield’s, King of Clubs, The Corner Bar, Kasai, and the grand mezzanine of the Landmark Theatre.

I caught up with Frank over coffee this morning – early enough for us both to be a little groggy – to talk about this good news.

Chuck Schiele: Hi Frank. Thank you for taking a few minutes with us. How does it feel to be back in the saddle?

Frank Malfitano: It feels great. And I’m really happy I lived to see this day. A lot of people have been waiting patiently for Syracuse Jazz Fest’s return for a very long time, and I’m one of them. And I couldn’t be happier that it’s happening this June and coming back after a five-year hiatus.

CS: If one is paying attention around these parts, it’s not hard to see your uphill stride for the last few years. That sort of tenacity appears to be rooted in – in this case – a love for jazz. Devoted, in fact.

FM: I said I’d never give up on this festival and that I’d never give up on my hometown and I meant it. I’ve always believed that to be a great city we need to present things that are great. Things with a major wow factor. Jazz Fest has always been about presenting the best jazz artists on the planet. It’s the type of event that distinguishes Syracuse on the national and international stage and makes us a cool city. We’re the 13th longest running jazz festival in the nation and one of the top 25 of longest running jazz festivals worldwide. It’s something for all of us to be proud of. And when you look at those lists, you won’t find many markets the size of Syracuse on them. It’s a big feather in our city’s cap.

CS: What does jazz itself mean to you?

FM: Jazz is American Heritage music that’s been around for 120 years. It’s an honor to be able to help preserve it and present it. It’s great music. It’s our music. And it’s a reflection of everything that’s great about America…creativity, freedom and freedom of expression.

CS: Is there anything different or new about the event?

FM: A lot. It’s back downtown for the first time in 20 years which is big news in itself, and news that’s being very well received by downtown businesses and Syracuse based musicans and fans. It’s also getting a very positive reaction from festival goers and jazz fans all over the nation and Canada who are really excited about Jazz Fest coming back.

This June’s festival also has greater participation than ever before by resident musicans with more than 100 Syracuse-based artists playing on opening night Thursday (June 23) at 20 different venues downtown, and an all star jazz big band leading things off at our outdoor stage in Clinton Square on Friday. It’s not an exaggeration to state that the region’s best players are being showcased at Jazz Fest 36 this June in ways we haven’t been able to program them previously.

CS: What are you looking forward to most as Jazz Fest re-emerges?

FM: Seeing the fans enjoy themselves. Witnessing the love that festival attendees, music lovers and local fans give to their homegrown artists and visiting touring and recording artists that are appearing is also a real thrill. It’s also great seeing visitors come in from around the country having a great time in Syracuse. As soon as we announced that the jazz fest press conference was on, we immediately heard from people all over the US and Canada who are making travel plans to attend. We’ve heard from folks in Toronto, Ottawa and Kingston in Canada, and from fans in Los Angeles, Richmond, Hartford, the Bronx, Detroit and Chicago.

CS: Now that you’re this far, what’s beyond the immediate horizon?

FM: There are a thousand moving parts to this festival, and there’s a lot of time-intensive and labor-intensive work that lays ahead before any artist and musician ever sets foot on our stages. Right now we’re focused on marketing and advertising and getting the word out that we’re back. After that megaphone phase is completed, we’ll shift our attention and focus to producing the festival on the actual weekend of. But when the city comes alive, and the bars, clubs and restaurants are packed, and people are reuniting at jazz fest from all over the country, and the greatest artists in the world are playing on our stages, there’s nothing like it. It’s magic. It’s worth it. And it’s a reminder that we can really be a great city when we work together and aim for the stars and shoot for the moon.

CS: Thank you, Frank for hanging in there like a champ on Jazz Fest, and for taking a little time for us today.

FM: I’m proud of the fact that we never threw in the towel, and never quit on our stool in the corner. To be a champ, you have to climb back into the ring, no matter how tough the battle gets. As any Syracuse native will tell you, if you get a little banged up, it’s just part of the game. If you get knocked down, you pick yourself back up. And you never stop swinging. Everybody loses a fight every once in a while, but that’s just the way the mop flops in this sport. Comebacks are what Syracuse is all about, and I’m really proud to be part of this one. After two years in COVID isolation, people need something to get excited about and look forward to again. And we need something great that will help re-unite the community and remind everyone what a great place Syracuse is. We’re hoping this year’s Jazz Fest will be that special something.

For the full schedule of performers and more information, visit the festival’s website at syracusejazzfest.com.

Chuck Schiele
Chuck Schiele is an award-winning musician, art director, producer, editorialist, artist, activist, member of SaltCityChill.com and fan of the CNY music scene. To be considered for this column, please write chuck.schiele@gmail.com.