Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival grows into separate weekend
Like a maturing adult, the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival is moving out on its own.
“At first, there was a natural synergy,” says J. Kevin McMahon of the first three years of the festival, when it was held on a weekend with the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival. “But we found we were competing with ourselves.”
He is the president and CEO of the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the organization that organizes the jazz festival. He has watched the festival grow during its first three years to the point where he and other planners decided it was time to move it to its own weekend — June 20 to 22.
It has drawn enough people — jazz fans, not simply strays from the arts festival — that it deserves to be on its own, he says. It adds another exciting weekend to the city, he says, and allows employees of the Cultural Trust to concentrate on the jazz festival rather than dividing their efforts.
It has been a festival that has fed local talent and introduced area fans to rising stars like Gregory Porter or mainstream talents such as bassist-arranger John Clayton. It also has offered events such as jazz crawls through local clubs and Showcase Noir with goods produced by black artisans.
Janis Burley Wilson, the trust’s vice president who organizes its jazz programming, says the festival is a “catalyst for economic development” in the way it is luring sponsors and sparking tourism and spending Downtown.
She says 18 percent of the festival’s 15,000 visitors in 2013 were from “out of town, and that means St. Louis and D.C. and Cincinnati, not Cranberry.” She and McMahon anticipate greater attendance this year.
“We are not programming for a decline,” McMahon says.
Burley Wilson also says North Coast Brewing from California and TGI Fridays have joined Macy’s as national sponsors, pointing to a growing interest.
That kind of sponsorship helps raise enough funds to keep and improve the festival’s events, Burley Wilson says. For instance, this year’s Friday evening jazz crawl will end with a concert by Snarky Puppy, the jazz-pop fusion jam band.
The festival also will feature performances by singer Dianne Reeves and the salsa band El Gran Combo, acts that might have been beyond earlier festivals.
There also will be an attempt to break the world’s line dancing record in an event called “Take a Healthy Step” the evening of June 20.
Providing variety draws a range of people, Burley Wilson says. The crowds have been mixed in all ways and have created a good-natured atmosphere.
“It says a lot about the way we want Pittsburgh to be,” she says.
One for the road
Dianne Reeves enjoys staying busy.
She is getting ready for an upcoming trip to Europe before returning to festival season in the States. She also is assembling material and thoughts on a new album.
“I’m out here, and I love it,” she says.
Reeves, 57, brings a great deal to her music. The Detroit native grew up in the peak of the Motown era. Her cousin is keyboardist and composer George Duke, who contributed a great deal to that genre.
Yet, her early albums showed an even stronger jazz nature, using sidemen such as Mulgrew Miller and Joshua Redman.
But she is never going to be predictable — in what she performs or records. Her current album, “Beautiful Life,” is a collection of tunes some would call overproduced and reliant on the contribution of other performers, from Esperanza Spalding to vocalists Gregory Porter and Lalah Hathaway.
She says she was trying to combine the styles and music of those performers with her own work.
“I think those people have been referencing what I have been doing,” she says, describing the album as a “conversation among friends.”
The album also features the work of trumpeter Sean Jones, who will be at the festival here in several settings and whom she hopes will stop in for a visit during her performance.
“Man, that would be just so nice,” she says.
She will perform here with her usual band of pianist Peter Martin, bassist Reginald Veal, drummer Terreon Gully and guitarist Romero Lubambo.
Reeves performs at 8 p.m. June 22 at Stage One
The ‘University of Salsa Musicians’
Good music is not the only reason to book a band, Ron Alvarado will tell you.
“It is making a statement,” says the board chair president of Pittsburgh’s Hispanic Chamber of Commerce. “We are trying to show that besides affordable homes and jobs, we also can have important parts of the Hispanic culture.”
He is talking about the appearance at the jazz festival of El Gran Combo, a 16-piece Latino band that he compares to the Beatles in terms of cultural importance.
The band has sold 150 million albums in its 50 years, he says, and has produced so many famed musicians it is nicknamed “The University of Salsa Musicians.”
Alvarado is president of Novus Group, a staffing and recruitment firm with area offices in Robinson.
He got involved in bringing the band here when Janis Burley Wilson from the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust heard of its availability. She went to Alvarado to see if he was interested in a sponsorship partnership, he says.
He also was able to enlist the city and county and groups such as the Latin American Cultural Union, Roberto Clemente Foundation, ImaginePittsburgh, the Downtown Partnership and VisitPittsburgh.
It is important for Pittsburgh to appeal to the growing Hispanic culture, he says, and the establish itself as an attractive place to live. A growing population in Beechview is beginning to display its Latino culture with restaurants and bakeries.
“We finally have a barrio — a neighborhood,” he says with pride.
El Gran Combo will perform at 3 p.m. June 22 at Stage One
A career in Harms way
Singer Nancy Harms has a grasp of jazz that would seem to indicate decades of work and study.
But she got involved in the music only during her college years and says she didn’t really start to grow before meeting a “guru and a mentor” in Minneapolis, where she moved in 2006.
“I think I am a very absorbent listener,” she says.
Harms now has put together two albums, is running her career out of Brooklyn and is looking forward to a busy stint in Europe this summer. Before that, however, she will bring her voice to the festival here, being one of the newer talents this event introduces each year.
Harms says she has been singing since she was quite young and has a photo of herself with a church group when she was 4. But it wasn’t until her days at Concordia College in Minnesota that she became attracted to jazz.
She started sitting in with small groups and started thinking, “Hey, this is something I really think I could do,” she says.
After teaching from 2001 to 2006 in a small town in Minnesota, she moved to Minneapolis to focus on a performing career. It was there she met Arne Fogel, whom she calls a “singer/arranger/historian” who helped guide her work.
She is putting together a sound that gives new looks to familiar tunes like “Bye Bye Blackbird” and jazz classics such as “It Could Happen to You.” Her sound shows a comfort that belies the amount of time she has been singing.
She also says she is at ease with trying to make herself known to the jazz audience, which is not one of the biggest in music.
“The fans are out there,” she says, “you just have to go looking for them.”
Harms will perform at 5:30 p.m. June 22 at the Ninth Street Stage
Put a Locke on it
Joe Locke is finally getting a chance to play in Pittsburgh.
“I’m very excited about it,” the vibes star says. “I know lots of good people from Pittsburgh — Jeff Watts, David Budway — but I just have never been there.”
His opportunity to play at the festival not only will introduce his excellent vibes style, but it will show another nature of his work: The band works at blending jazz with the rhythm and blues and soul Locke grew up with in Buffalo. The band, called the Blues & Ballad Project, features singer Kenny Washington.
“I was listening to everything back then,” Locke says. “Music was part of the social scene. And it was very soulful, whether it was Earth Wind & Fire or the Ohio Players.”
But into that soulfulness, Locke, 55, injects the creativity and distinct sound of his vibes, giving the music a ringing brightness that takes it a different direction.
Also in his group are drummer Jaimeo Brown, bassist Lorin Cohen and pianist Ryan Cohan.
Because of his skills, Locke is part of many projects as a sideman as well as putting together his own group.
“I think of myself as an improviser whose instrument happens to be the vibes,” he says.
Locke will perform at 6:30 p.m. June 21 on Stage Two
Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7852.