Features & Columns

2016 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest Covers the Bases

Summer Jazz Fest had a little something for everyone,
including the Miguel Zenon Quartet
Summer Jazz Fest had a little something for everyone, including the Miguel Zenon Quartet. Photo by Greg Ramar

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated that Song of Lahore was not on the Jazz Fest schedule. Metro regrets the error.—Editor

The jazz came from places as far away as Luxembourg, Brazil and Los Gatos. Activity spiraled out from the main stage into the surrounding corridors, clubs and hotels, unleashing wild sonic environments for both sedentary and nomadic types.

A forest of lawn chairs filled parts of Plaza de Cesar Chavez while other fans migrated around the urban landscape. In the VIP area, one could easily listen to the main stage and the salsa stage at once. If one prowled the neighborhood, a variety of performances created urban sound collages of the most transcendental sort.

There was something for everyone at the 2016 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Suburban nuclear families parked themselves on the grass and 81-year-old Tootie Heath told masturbation jokes inside Cafe Stritch. All bases were covered.

On South First Street, fans lined up outside Stritch and the California Theater all weekend long. On the other side of the 'hood, the normally Vietnamese-specific Jade Leaf restaurant jammed itself to capacity with numerous acts all weekend long.

While musicians, jazz fans, and wristbands of all sorts filled downtown, a grand surprise unfolded inside Camera 12 Cinemas. The 2015 film, Song of Lahore, about a group of traditional Pakistani musicians who travel to New York City to perform with Wynton Marsalis, screened to a crowd of eight people that included the filmmaker. Thousands of festival attendees crawling all over the neighborhood might not have known about the film.

Camera 12 was hosting a major Indian film festival all week, replete with a red carpet, along with a step-and-repeat outside on Paseo de San Antonio. As a result, tons of Indian people in traditional attire congregated inside and outside the theater, but few of them had any idea the jazz festival was going on and none of them seemed to know about Song of Lahore. Likewise, no one at the Jazz Festival seemed to know the Indian film festival was taking place.

There I was, inside Theater No. 4, along with eight people to watch a fantastic film filled with music, laughter and the human spirit. It requires some historical background, so bear with me for a few measures: The capital of old Punjab, Lahore, was also for centuries the cultural capital of Northern India, a religiously diverse and cosmopolitan epicenter of music, poetry, film, architecture and just about all flavors of arts intelligentsia—before the British violently split the country and destroyed it all. As a result, that version of Lahore is long gone now. It exists only in myth.

These days, radical clerics and right-wing authoritarian nutcases adhering to more extreme interpretations of Islam don't seem to want anyone playing music, so traditional Pakistani musicians are viewed on the same social level as prostitutes. They have to hide in their flats and practice so that nearby radicals don't hear them.

The Sachal Jazz Ensemble endeavored to revive traditional Pakistani music history but couldn't get any recognition or support, so they started incorporating Western jazz elements into their practice. Their version of Dave Brubeck's "Take Five" went viral all over YouTube, resulting in Wynton Marsalis inviting them to perform with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra. The chaotic scenes of both ensembles rehearsing together exemplified a breathtaking clash of cultures, with the Sachal musicians visibly nervous and barely on the same page, musically speaking. But they pulled it off in masterful fashion, hiring a replacement sitar player at the last minute and practicing in their hotel rooms straight up through the morning of the gig. Scenes from the performance itself were joyous to watch, a true meeting of East and West.

That was just one event, of course. In the end, the 2016 San Jose Jazz Summer Fest included people who played with John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus—enough reason for anyone to celebrate.