Features & Columns

San Jose Jazz Summer Fest Proves it's Ready to Take Next Step

FUNKED UP: George Clinton, center, brought the house down in a lovingly weird atmosphere on the opening night of San Jose Jazz Summer Fest. Photo by Greg Ramar

SAN JOSE JAZZ Summer Fest requires highly tuned skills in decision making. One plan for this past weekend involved setting priorities, defining goals and establishing a regimented schedule. Another involved a more nomadic approach, wandering through the masses with only abstract goals in mind. Or, there was Plan C, reserved for those who refuse to identify on a binary of nomadic-sedentary: navigating a tightrope between both options.

At its best, the festival showed the possibilities of interconnected cosmopolitan worldliness. The variety of folks ranged from jazzed-out AARP-level veterans to texting millennial hipsters. Decades-long experts traded tips with festival first-timers. At any moment one could choose from 88-year-old Jimmy Cobb playing straight-ahead jazz, Czech kids playing Dixieland or Taimane Gardner rocking Michael Jackson on the ukulele. From the opening downbeat, one could simply space out and wander or make a hard choice and sit still.

On opening night, George Clinton's crowd was overwhelmingly peaceful, with everyone dancing, singing, drinking and smoking with no issues. People parked themselves on the grass, stood up, screamed, danced, pounded beers and did whatever else they wanted. Movement to the beat was the one constant.

Half a block up the street, another legend, trumpeter Eddie Henderson, gigged at a sweaty Vietnamese restaurant, the Jade Leaf. This venue made a perfect fit for sedentary types. One had to arrive early to get a seat—as with each gig at Jade Leaf, the venue filled to capacity before the music even started. At the same exact time as those two scenarios, Cafe Stritch was jammed to capacity for the Posi-Tone Records Showcase. One block further, the San Jose Jazz High School All Stars played Forager.

And this was just the opening few hours. Over the weekend, there was no possible way for an already-spaced-out wanderer to set definitive goals. Instead, the best plan of attack was to subtly harmonize the opposites of nomadic and sedentary. Park it for awhile, then pound the sidewalk to the next buzzing group of people. The buzz was ubiquitous.

That said, my hedging plan of attack included Big Sandy and the Fly-Rite Boys tearing it up on Post Street while Fillmore Slim sat there in a chair curbside. In fact, Big Sandy spent just as much time addressing Slim from the stage as he did talking to his own audience. It was wonderful. Sandy even gave props to the old San Jose clubs he used to play 25 years ago, like the Ajax Lounge.

A variety of fantastic women also came into my life over the weekend. At Jade Leaf, Canadian singer Tia Brazda played on Saturday afternoon, while San Jose's own Jackie Gage closed the place that same evening. At Stritch, Kavita Shah of Gujarati descent sang a Senegalese tune, plus a Joni Mitchell number, and also taught the audience Brazilian Candomble rhythms, all with a French bass player. That's five continents represented in one set. Holy mackerel.

Also fantastic was seeing the Hammer Theatre yet again occupied by a solid weekend-long schedule of music. Hammond B3 legend Dr. Lonnie Smith filled the entire theater to capacity. He was all over the dynamic spectrum, explosive and bombastic, then serene and tranquil, sometimes in a span of just 30 seconds. Back-alley noir atmospherics effortlessly transitioned into blues soundtracks and free improv hysteria, and then back again.

Continuing on the noir front, Dmitri Matheny and his band tore through soundtracks like Touch of Evil, Chinatown and Taxi Driver—that is, in between Chet Baker and Soundgarden. Plus, Matheny read a long crime noir poem by Dana Gioia, which made me want to reread every Raymond Chandler book.

At the end, I started thinking. After 28 years, it's long overdue to bring this festival to the next level. A forward-thinking city shouldn't keep cramming the festival into one weekend. Make it a week. Include the Civic Auditorium, the CPA, the entire San Jose State University campus, plus the neighborhood bars and art galleries. Add more shows for high rollers, cheapskates, avant-garde weirdos and dive-bar denizens. Make it even more diverse.

If the downtown core is going to expand all the way to Diridon Station, then the SJZ Summer Fest and the entire arts community should expand along with it. And Google should donate at least a million dollars. At least.