Back in 1978, the first Atlanta Jazz Festival was created to put Atlanta on the map as a leader in the presentation of jazz. The festival, which is marking its 40th anniversary, long ago grew into an annual tradition.
“Atlantans anticipate that on Memorial Day weekend, they can go to Piedmont Park with their families and enjoy a wonderful, communal experience,” said Camille Russell Love, executive director of the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs.
This year’s festival technically takes place May 26-28, but that barely scratches the surface on what this year’s festival has to offer.
To celebrate 40 years, the festival has expanded its program to 40 days of jazz-related events, starting April 21 and ending May 31. (A full schedule of events can be found at events.accessatlanta.com/event/atlanta-jazz-festival-2017.)
The Memorial Day weekend festival is free and takes place in Piedmont Park. The festival has a major economic impact for Atlanta, about $15.5 million last year to be precise. Last year’s event attracted an estimated 150,000 attendees.
“It has tremendous economic impact,” Love said. “Not only do Atlantans come to the festival, but people from all around the world (come) to experience the festival.”
40 days for 40 years
The 40 Days of Jazz isn’t limited to Piedmont Park. The first event on April 21 actually is an art gallery opening at Arnika Dawkins Gallery. There’s also a MARTA Mondays series of free performances, which will take place at various MARTA stations, and a Neighborhood Jazz Series, which offers free concerts at various Atlanta parks on weekends.
The shows in Piedmont Park are split among three stages, each representing a different category of jazz: Legends, Contemporary and Next Gen.
The Legends Stage is made up of artists who were instrumental to jazz’s roots, some dating back to the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Artists including Regina Carter, Charles Lloyd, the Robert Glasper Experiment and Freddy Cole will perform on this stage.
“There’s no way that you can play today like they did in 1932,” said Freddy Cole, 85. “It’s impossible because you weren’t there. The players who played in 1932, their styles and forms of music are still lasting.”
The Contemporary Stage includes artists who mix various genres with jazz. The stage will host people and bands such as Moonchild and Macy Gray.
“I think it’s amazing because you have people like me who aren’t pure jazz artist as far as the records I put out, so you attract different crowds … and they get exposed to other stuff,” said Gray, 49.
The Next Gen Stage is exactly as it sounds, and it’ll feature up-and-coming young artists attempting to bring jazz to a new generation. May 28 will feature only artists from Atlanta or with strong Atlanta ties.
“We want to celebrate the jazz movement in Atlanta and what the fruits of our labor have produced,” Love said.
South Africa’s influence on American jazz
One of the most ambitious additions to the festival’s lineup of events will occur on April 30. It’s the International Jazz Day Concert, and it’ll feature jazz musicians from around the world.
“We’re having this wonderful convergence from musicians from around the world, who had adapted their cultural whatevers to America’s true art form, which is jazz,” Love said.
Tamuz Nissim will represent Israel, Senri Oe hails from Japan and Sofia Rei is from Argentina. The night’s featured act is one of the most influential jazz groups to ever play, the Jazz Epistles. In fact, the South African group influenced some of the all-time greats.
“I found out in New York (when) I met Trane (Coltrane), (Thelonious) Monk and Ornette (Coleman) that they had been listening to the Jazz Epistles and that we had been breaking the same kind of boundaries that they did,” said Abdullah Ibrahim, the Jazz Epistles’ 82-year-old pianist.
“I wouldn’t wish exile on anybody. It was quite difficult,” Ibrahim said. “The thing that was most painful was to dream, because when you have these pleasant dreams that you are home with family and friends and then wake up to reality — that you are not there. It’s very painful.”
He was able to return to Cape Town once apartheid ended in 1991, and he still lives there now. Tickets to see the International Jazz Day Concert (available on ticketmaster.com; search for Atlanta Jazz Festival) cost $40, and it takes place at the Rialto Center for the Arts.
The uncertain future of jazz
Veteran artists like Ibrahim and Cole said that festivals like the Atlanta Jazz Festival help preserve the legacy and cultural significance of jazz. However, some of the younger artists, like Robert Glasper, see a much darker future for jazz unless things change.
“The reason we have to preserve it is because people have put it in the grave already,” Glasper said. “The very people who love jazz is who are making it extinct and are making us have to almost put it on a (respirator) because we refuse to showcase our younger artists and give them the correct support and correct marketing when something new is happening.”
This is in stark contrast to Cole’s viewpoint of “Jazz will always find a way.” But Glasper sees a genre that’s being held back by its lack of new ideas and modernity.
“We’re the only music that has to preserve,” Glasper said. “R&B doesn’t have that problem. Country music doesn’t have that problem. Nobody has that problem because they champion that new sound that’s happening in that genre. We need to do that.”
Regardless of jazz’s future in popular music and culture, its roots and history will be on full display through April and May during the Atlanta Jazz Festival.
“There are a lot of festivals who use jazz because jazz indicates a certain amount of sashay, but they stray away from jazz,” Love said. “They’re everything but jazz. The Atlanta Jazz Festival is truly a jazz festival.”
Staff writer Melissa Ruggieri contributed to this article.