Jazzing up the town: Northampton Jazz Festival brings three days of music to the city

  • Rising jazz star Endea Owens and her ensemble play at the Unitarian Society Saturday at 3 and 4:15 p.m. Photo courtesy Northampton Jazz Festival

  • Emmet Cohen, winner of the 2019 American Pianists Award, plays at CLICK Workspace on Saturday. Image from Emmet Cohen website

  • Singer Atla DeChamplain will front her Connecticut quartet at the “Jazz Brunch” on Sunday, a Northampton Jazz Festival event that raises money for the JFK jazz band program. Photo courtesy Northampton Jazz Festival

  • Saxophonist Gary Smulyan, at right, works last fall with JFK student musicians in a program funded through the Northampton Jazz Festival. Gazette file photo

  • Members of the Springfield Sci Tech Band, here performing at the 2018 Northampton Jazz Festival, play this year’s fest as well on Friday. Photo by Bobby Davis

  • Acclaimed jazz singer and songwriter Kurt Elling performs Saturday evening at the Academy of Music. Photo courtesy Northampton Jazz Festival

  • JFK Band Director Claire-anne Williams directs jazz students at the Hotel Northampton during the 2018 Northampton Jazz Fest. Photo by Bobby Davis

Staff Writer
Friday, October 04, 2019

Aside from its busy music clubs and their year-round schedules, Northampton also features regular music festivals with specific themes: gypsy jazz at the longstanding Django in June series, Americana at the Back Porch Festival in February, a mix of good-time styles at the summer series at Pulaski Park produced by the city’s Arts Council.

Jazz is now on the menu as well, as the Northampton Jazz Festival, begun in 2011, was reintroduced in 2018 after a hiatus of a few years. The festival is back for another year, with some changes in the schedule that organizers hope will give everyone a chance to catch some of the acts — and check out city shops and eateries.

The 2019 jazz fest, which takes place Friday to Sunday, Oct. 4-7, offers 16 performances slotted into over a dozen venues — most of them for free — which should provide something for everyone, says Ruth Griggs, the festival president.

“We’ve heard from so many people over the years that they’d like to hear more jazz in town,” said Griggs, who has worked with a number of other people, including members of the Downtown Northampton Association and different sponsors, to put together the 2019 festival. “This gives us an opportunity to present the music in different ways, in different venues, and with a range of performers.”

Those performers include Kurt Elling, a Grammy-winning singer, songwriter and arranger, as well as up-and-coming young artists such as pianist Emmet Cohen and bassist/composer Endea Owens. There are local and regional acts as well, including The Joe Belmont Experience of Northampton and drummer and composer Ed Fast of Hartford, Connecticut, who will lead his “congabop” ensemble in a set of Caribbean and Latin-flavored jazz at Pulaski Park.

The festival begins Friday, Oct. 4 at 5 p.m. with a “Jazz Strut” that features live performances, by eight different ensembles in seven downtown locations, including the Northampton Brewery, The Platform Bar and Haymarket Cafe. The gigs are between one and two hours, and the music as a whole runs from 5 to 10:30 p.m., with “No cover. No minimum,” as festival notes put it, so you can hear a variety of music in the course of an evening.

Saturday is the festival’s big day, with nine performances during the afternoon in five locations, including The Parlor Room and The Northampton Center for the Arts (and in Holyoke’s Delaney House), followed by a 7:30 p.m. concert at the Academy of Music by the Kurt Elling Quintet. The afternoon performances are free; tickets for the Kurt Elling show range from $15 to $47.

Elling, who the New York Times has called “the standout male vocalist of our time,” has a dozen Grammy nominations to his name as well as eight Jazz Journalists Association awards for “Male Singer of the Year.” Griggs says he’s celebrated both for his songwriting and his creative and soulful interpretations of songs by other artists, including un-jazz-like acts such as U2 and Bob Dylan.

“He’s really kind of a poet,” she said.

Meantime, Endea Owens, who plays with her ensemble “The Cookout” at the Unitarian Society at 3 and 4:15 p.m., has been profiled in The Wall Street Journal and Billboard magazine and was also named Lincoln Center’s Emerging Artist of 2019. The Juilliard School graduate has played in a number of other countries and has also soaked up some Caribbean influences during music exchange programs in Cuba and Trinidad and Tobago.

And Emmet Cohen, a composer as well as a pianist, is the winner of the 2019 American Pianists Award, an artist-in-residence at the University of Indianapolis, and has been a featured performer at Lincoln Center, the Village Vanguard, Birdland and other high-profile venues. He plays at CLICK workspace at noon and 1:15 p.m.

Other performers on Saturday are celebrated guitarist Jack Wilkins and his trio; the New York City-based Native Soul Quartet; and Ed Fast and Congabob.

Paying it forward

The Northampton Jazz Festival began in 2011 with some different organizers, who offered the event in a more traditional format: presenting most of the music outdoors, on a stage set up beneath a tent in the parking lot behind Thornes Market.

Though the festival then took place in September, bad weather was a factor at least one year in holding down attendance, Griggs noted, while the cost of renting sound equipment and other items, such as chairs for the audience, proved daunting, she said.

“I think what we have now is a good size for the community,” she noted. “And we’ve also worked with different merchants and venues so that we can offer music in a variety of places, and bring people into the community, have visitors actually walking around town and visiting shops in between shows…. We want people to have lunch downtown.”

The new iteration of the festival, as it did in 2018, has also added a Sunday Brunch event, this year at the Delaney House, on Sunday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. The DeChamplain Quartet, from Hartford, will perform; the group is comprised of vocalist Atla DeChamplain, pianist Matt DeChamplain, guitarist Chris Morrison and bassist Matt Dwonszyk.

This ticketed event — $40, including the meal — is in part a fundraiser for a program that brings professional jazz musicians to the JFK Middle School in Florence three times a year, where artists run workshops with young musicians and also assist with the school’s jazz band assemblies.

The program, now run by the local Davis Financial Group, proved so popular last year that it helped spur the creation of a similar jazz mentor program in the high school, Griggs noted. The latter effort was also spurred by some $6,000 in donations that were made to a fund in memory of a young jazz musician at NHS, Elliot Ross, who died last November.

The Jazz Brunch, Griggs said, “not only adds to the weekend, it’s proved to be a great opportunity to help out the students and [JFK band director] Claire-anne Williams … maybe some of [the students] will be playing at the festival some time in the future.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

For more information on the Northampton Jazz Festival, and to purchase tickets for the paying events, visit northamptonjazzfest.org.