Jazz is sometimes dubbed a stagnant, even endangered art. Northampton doesn’t seem to have received word—its jazz scene is not only still alive, it’s expanding at an impressive clip. Head over to the Clarion Hotel most nights, and you’ll find the Loft Lounge stuffed with patrons who listen attentively to local and regional jazz players. It’s the current ground zero for the growing scene.
Back in 2011, the tide of jazz support gained new strength with what seemed like a modest effort. It was dubbed the Northampton Jazz Festival, and featured local and regional jazz groups taking the stage near the downtown parking garage and in other nearby venues. Such efforts often bloom in the Valley—just look at that other Northampton jazz festival, Django in June, an institution after 11 ever-larger installments—and the small fest is now big. Since 2011, when it was founded by John Michaels and Jeff Siegel, the Jazz Festival has become a juggernaut of an event, spanning several days and several venues and bringing talent from far beyond the Valley. It’s also, notably, a free event organized by a non-profit group—the founders passed the torch to a small board of directors after the 2013 season.
Jazz may be the main draw, but the Fest is now something more akin to a downtown Northampton party. “It’s been growing in leaps and bounds,” says boardmember John Kane. “We wanted to add more of the ‘festival’ part to the fest—we wanted a true festive atmosphere.”
The board includes some folks who are key to that growth, people like Bill Collins, formerly of the Spoleto restaurant group and owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow, and board president Steve Bartlett, general manager of McLadden’s Irish Pub in Northampton. Thanks in part to such connections to downtown businesses and the support of the Northampton Business Improvement District and the Arts Council, the event list includes new venues and some decidedly non-musical elements. Chief among them is the 12-Mile Meal Challenge, in which chefs compete by crafting meals from ingredients sourced no more than 12 miles away. This year’s contenders are Casey Douglass of Galaxy and Xavier Jones of Viva Fresh Pasta. They’ll take on last year’s winners, Jackson Smith and O’Brian Tomalin from Sierra Grille. Concertgoers can also expect vendors, a wine-tasting tent and a beer garden.
For the first time, the Fest includes a home brew contest, judged by 10 brewing pros and 60 VIP tasters. It’s a natural progression from Kane’s point of view: “My day job is brewing organic beer [with Portland, Maine’s Peak Organic].” Kane adds that his organizing role sprang from his company’s earlier involvement as a sponsor.
Of particular note is what happens at A.P.E. Gallery on Main Street: students from the Pioneeer Valley Performing Arts high school as well as UMass, Amherst College and Holyoke Community College take the stage all afternoon. Music education, says Campbell, is a central focus of the Fest. “This year, we’re introducing our music education fund,” he says. “We’ll be presenting equipment to one of the local institutions. Next year, we’re adding to it with an individual instrument scholarship.”
The sprawling event begins this week on Sept. 2 with smaller events leading to the biggest day, Saturday, Sept. 6. On the evening of Sept. 3, Thornes Market hosts a “Jazz Fest Celebration” shopping event with music by Bowties. On Sept. 5, the “Downtown Strut” offers five bands at five downtown restaurants. Sept. 6 brings a daylong roster of events.
For a full schedule, visit http://www.northamptonjazzfestival.org. The performers include some big names from the New York scene as well as some talented locals.
On Sept. 2, the Festival opens with a show at the Clarion Hotel. Vocalist Giacomo Gates joins the Green Street Trio for a set, and the venue’s usual open mic follows. Gates hasn’t always been a jazz vocalist—starting in the ’70s, he worked as a laborer and an operator of construction equipment, primarily in Alaska. He performed gigs along the way, and in the late ’80s, returned to his native Connecticut to pursue music as a career. His smooth delivery and big voice have gained him lots of praise, and his latest release, Miles Tones, topped the National Jazz Radio Playlist for four weeks.
Trumpeter Charles approaches jazz from an unusual perspective—he was born in Trinidad, moved to Florida, then New York, and now teaches at Michigan State University. His music reflects the diversity of his background and learning, and he says jazz is, at heart, “Creole music.” Just as Creole culture is a mix of influences European, African, and Caribbean, Charles’ music is a fusion of styles that departs from ports of call as unlikely as Haitian voodoo music and ends up in the American jazz tradition. His trumpet playing is a wailing, expressive highwire act.
The daughter of music educator and trumpeter Stephen Fulton, vocalist and pianist Champian Fulton became interested in music as a young girl. In the context of her family’s involvement in the jazz world, her musical skills were readily fostered. She formed a group after a summer camp at the Clark Terry Institute for Jazz Studies, where her father was director. She played shows throughout high school, and after her 2006 college graduation moved to New York City to pursue her career. Her fourth CD, Champian Sings and Swings, arrived in 2013.
Sprague, who grew up in Western Mass., is a young jazz pianist who’s already received some major accolades. He won several Downbeat Magazine Student Music Awards, and in 2012 was chosen to attend the Thelonious Monk Institute. He’s been a regular at Valley venues, and this year he leads a quintet that will hit the Main Stage.•