‘Throwing a party for 50,000 people’: Savannah Jazz Festival returns with big events, bigger talent

Eric Wyatt with Jeff Taint Watts performs Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at the Savannah Jazz Festival. (Savannah Jazz)

Credit: Courtesy Savannah Jazz

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Eric Wyatt with Jeff Taint Watts performs Friday, Sept. 22, 2023, at the Savannah Jazz Festival. (Savannah Jazz)

Credit: Courtesy Savannah Jazz

The 42nd annual Savannah Jazz Festival is in full swing, with several nights of special ticketed events leading up to the ever-popular free concerts in Forsyth Park beginning on Friday.

The festival kicked off on Monday night with a screening of the documentary Miles Davis: The Birth of Cool at the Lucas Theatre. On Tuesday, the Ships of the Sea Museum is hosting Blues Night with with Chicago blues slide guitarist Lil' Ed & The Blue Imperials, and blues singer EG Kight with her band.

Wednesday night is Latin Dance Night at the Ships of the Sea Museum with Atlanta’s spicy C.O.T. Band which blends Caribbean Rhythms with elements of Funk, Pop and Brazilian beats.

Thursday night is a major headlining event at the Lucas Theatre with two-time Grammy Award-winners Ranky Tanky, who are known for their high-energy Gullah-based sound.

“They’re kind of Lowcountry music royalty right now,” said Paula Fogarty, executive director of Savannah Jazz.

Ranky Tanky performed at The Savannah Jazz Festival in 2020 as a live-stream, but this will be their first real appearance at the festival. “It’s a very different experience to be moved by the music in person,” said Fogarty.

Scale of Savannah Jazz Festival and level of talent has grown

There may be more emphasis on ticketed events than in years past, but that is because the scale of the festival and the level of talent booked to perform, has grown, all while remaining affordable and accessible for audiences.

“Our focus, really, is on the artists, so this year’s line-up is probably one of the most robust in terms of talent,” said Fogarty. “Our budget for the artists is bigger than it’s ever been. That’s our focus, is delivering super high quality music.”

The focus on high quality music will pay off on Friday night when the festival takes over Forsyth Park with 13 free concerts. Music will fill the air beginning at 5 pm with performances by UNF Ensemble #1, and the U.S. Navy Band SE. As the sun begins to set, Milena Casado, a flugelhorn and trumpet player from Spain, will take the stage and show why she is a rising star in the jazz word.

Then saxophonist Eric Wyatt and drummer Jeff Tain Watts will deliver some straight-up fiery jazz. Wyatt is a protégé of his godfather Sonny Rollins, but is also heavily influenced by John Coltrane. Watts is an industry veteran who has played with Wynton Marsalis, Bradford Marsalis, Alice Coltrane, Ravi Coltrane, Betty Carter, and Michael Brecker.

C.O.T. Band plays Sept. 20, 2023, at the Ships of the Sea Museum as part of the Latin Dance Party  hosted by the Savannah Jazz Festival.

Credit: Courtesy Savannah Jazz

Credit: Courtesy Savannah Jazz

The Dizzy Gillespie Afro-Latin Experience will close out the night with “energy, verve, and style.” The ensemble features Dizzy Gillespie’s longtime bassist, musical director John Lee, Dizzy’s former drummer Tommy Campbell, Freddie Hendrix on trumpet & flugelhorn, Sharel Cassity on Alto saxophone & flute, Brazilian pianist & vocalist Abelita Mateus, and Roger Squitero on congas, bongos, and percussion.

Festivities continue on Saturday beginning at 1 pm with Demetrius Doctor Trio & the Wives, who draw influence from the South Carolina Gullah/Geechee infused African-American churches they all grew up in.

Internationally acclaimed pianist, composer, and educator Martin Lesch and his band follow. Lesch is a regular at Hilton Head’s The Jazz Corner and his band includes Jackson Evans on guitar, Chris Russell on drums, Stutz Wimmer on sax and Marc Chesanow on bass.

It wouldn’t be the Savannah Jazz Festival without a performance by the Savannah Jazz Hall Of Fame All-Stars which features inductees Teddy Adams, Howard Paul, Huxsie Scott, Delbert Felix, and Randall Reese, all legends of Savannah’s jazz history.

Jazz musician Teddy Adams talks about growing up and playing Jazz on West Broad Street and then helping to bring Jazz back to Savannah.

Credit: Richard Burkhart

Credit: Richard Burkhart

Audiences will be compelled to dance by the infectious energy of Buckwheat Zydeco, Jr. and Ils Sont Partis Band. Stanley ‘Buckwheat’ Dural, Jr., is continuing his father’s legacy by delivering true Louisiana Zydeco music around the country. This is a welcome return of Buckwheat Zydeco to the festival.

Legendary Chicago saxman Frank Catalano has released numerous albums on Blue Note, Warner Bros., and Capital Records. He has collaborated with Jennifer Lopez, Beyoncé, Destiny’s Child, John Legend, Tony Bennett and Seal, and teams up regularly with Smashing Pumpkins’ drummer Jimmy Chamberlain. He is was also the youngest saxophonist to be voted into the Downbeat Critics Poll at age 19.

Jane Bunnett & Maqueque are returning to the festival. Saxophonist Bunnett has been nominated for Grammy Awards, numerous Juno Awards, received an Order of Canada, The Queens Diamond Jubilee medal, and most recently Ontario’s Premiers Award for Excellence. She is backed by an all-female quintet of Cuban artists, with whom she explores Afro-Cuban melodies and rhythms.

Award-winning vocalist Nicolas Bearde will lend his silky baritone and wit to the 17-piece Savannah Jazz Orchestra, co-directed by Teddy Adams and Randal Reese. Once things wrap up at Forsyth Park, the party will continue at the DeSoto Hotel for a Late Night Jam beginning at 11:00 pm.

The festival on Sunday highlights the younger generation of artists, as District Live at Plant Riverside hosts School Band Day featuring Savannah Arts Academy, Hilton Christian Academy, SCAD Bee Sharps, and Georgia State Jazz band.

“That’s really an opportunity to showcase the future of jazz,” said Fogarty. “It’s important to our mission as a 41-year old non-profit stewards of jazz in Savannah, we gotta keep the next generation excited about jazz.”

Tickets and information for events are available at savannahjazz.org.

“Something that we’re really working on, because it’s a ‘festival,’ and not a ‘concert series,’ is everything we’re doing is really super upbeat, whether it’s our straight ahead jazz performers, or blues, or zydeco, or Latin bands,” explained Fogarty. “That’s the vibe we’re pulling through all of the performances this year.”

“We’re throwing a party for 50,000 people.”

This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: ‘Throwing a party for 50,000 people’: Savannah Jazz Festival returns with big events, bigger talent


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