With an emphasis on a wide spectrum of styles and performers as well as a new venue, the 43rd Sarasota Jazz Festival aims to broaden its audience.
| 4:00 p.m. March 8, 2023
Arts + Culture
Love jazz? No matter the answer to that question, the Jazz Club of Sarasota has planned something for you in its upcoming 43rd annual Sarasota Jazz Festival.
“There are lots of people of all ages who enjoy jazz every day, but don’t know that they’re listening to it,” says Ed Linehan, the president of the Jazz Club of Sarasota.
For Linehan and his team, the festival, which runs from March 13-18, represents an opportunity to bridge the gap between devoted and potential fans and keep the genre relevant.
Catering to current audiences while attracting a new crowd of listeners has driven every decision made by the festival committee.
“In this and last year’s festival, our interest has been in expanding the range and depth of varieties of jazz that we’re presenting without abandoning tradition,” says Linehan.
From selecting the festival’s music director to relocating a majority of programming to University Town Center, the committee has made many strategic changes aimed at increasing the festival’s popularity.
The committee prioritized finding a music director who could help bring in a diverse array of performers. It chose Terell Stafford, a Grammy Award winner, previous festival performer and educator, due to his knack for networking. After creating their dream list of performers spanning a wide range of jazz subgenres, the committee tasked Stafford with determining which artists were available. Stafford’s expertise came in handy, and every performer this year came from the original dream list.
“As we make our wish list, we’re driven by wanting quality performers who already have an audience and name that people recognize,” Linehan says. “But we also want ones who are capable of generating a new audience when heard for the first time.”
To present returning and upcoming artists at their best, the committee broke from its tradition of inviting only individual artists, instead of the artists accompanied by their own bands. “We made this choice because each artist is presented better with their own musicians that they’ve worked with the most,” he says.
All four headline performers and half of the opening acts will be accompanied by their bands. Vocalists Lizz Wright and Kurt Elling, bassist Marcus Miller and Latin jazz great Paquito D’Rivera will headline the mainstage. Pianist Christian Sands, The Allen Carman Project with percussionist Gumbi Ortiz, pianist Dick Hyman with guitarist Diego Figueiredo and saxophonist Houston Person with organist Tony Monaco will open for the headliners. Each performer will bring a distinct flair to the stage, and Linehan hopes that this variety will draw in larger audiences with different musical tastes (see full lineup list).
Singers Wright and Elling will focus on traditional vocal jazz while Miller will generate excitement with modern fusion and funk jazz. Certain pairings will blend various styles together, surprising audiences. Pianist and composer Hyman, renowned for his work scoring films like "Moonstruck," will play with Brazilian guitarist Figueiredo, beloved for his interpretations of bossa nova, one of Brazil’s most iconic musical styles.
“Dick and Diego have worked together a number of times, and the juxtaposition of them in a set is an unanticipated joy,” says Linehan. "Hosting a festival with a variety of musical styles means that people might come out to hear a particular type of jazz, but leave having fallen in love with a new sound."
Linehan is also eager for audiences to experience how artists from different generations approach the same instrument, as is the case with the festival’s two pianists, Hyman and Sands. Hyman, in his mid-90s, and Sands, in his early 30s, will bring both years of experience and a youthful presence to the festival.
“Having Dick, who’s done a lot of everything, and a young Christian Sands will show that the future of jazz is being represented by a new generation of performers and that jazz is not dead,” Linehan says.
Catering to audiences of all ages was an important factor in determining not only the festival lineup but also in selecting an appropriate venue. When the festival returned in 2022 after a pandemic hiatus, the committee opted for an outdoor setting, hoping to appeal to older audiences concerned about contracting COVID-19. However, many of these attendees weren’t comfortable spending the entire evening outdoors.
This year, the Jazz Club of Sarasota is partnering with the Circus Arts Conservatory for the four main stage events, which will be held indoors at the Ulla Searing Big Top at University Town Center.
Along with the main stage events, the Jazz Trolley Pub Crawl and Late Night Open Jazz Jams will be held at Nathan Benderson Park and the UTC area. The only event not at UTC is the screening of two jazz films at the Burns Court Cinema in downtown Sarasota.
“We want to make the festival available to a wider range of people, and one of the nice things about focusing it around Nathan Benderson Park is that it’s easier to conceptualize visually,” says Linehan.
As a central hub for the festival, UTC is an ideal place for bands and musicians from the Sarasota-Manatee area to showcase their talents. On the trolley pub crawl, 10 local jazz bands will play at 10 locations, and during the late-night jams, musicians can play together into the night.
“We found that a portion of our younger audiences wasn’t ready to go home,” Linehan says, “and the jams are a way for them to listen to music or play and be an active part of the performance.” This year marks the second time the festival has hosted the jams, but the trolley pub crawl is a staple.
Keven Aland, the violinist of Hot Club SRQ, which will perform in the trolley crawl, has participated in the event for at least eight years. His band focuses on gypsy or hot club jazz —which originated in 1930s France and is characterized by an emphasis on string instruments — but puts a modern twist on other styles. According to Aland, the new location offers a chance to expand into a different part of Sarasota that’s embracing live music.
“This is an opportunity to get up and close and see a live performance that resonates better than listening on a mobile phone or streaming,” says Aland, “which could drive younger listeners to explore the music.”
The committee’s intentional planning is paying off, with the festival’s ticket sales set to double those of the same period last year, and Linehan aspires for it to grow from a regional to a national destination event in the future.
“It’s a platform for musicians to share their talent and for audiences to appreciate the music in the way that it’s intended to be enjoyed,” he says. “There’s nothing finer than the opportunity to be at a live performance where you don’t know for sure what will happen next.”
Sarasota Jazz Festival Lineup
March 13: VIP Reception; By invitation for festival sponsors and VIP ticket-holders
March 14: Jazz Trolley Pub Crawl; 10 bands at 10 venues; 5:30-9:30 p.m.; University Town Center
March 15: Main Stage Event; Opener Christian Sands Trio and headliner Lizz Wright; 6-9:15 p.m.; Nathan Benderson Park
March 16: Jazz Film Series; The Benny Goodman Story; 9 a.m.; Burns Court Cinema
March 16: Main Stage Event; Openers The Allen Carman Project with Gumbi Ortiz and headliner Marcus Miller; 6-9:15 p.m.; Nathan Benderson Park
March 17: Jazz Film Series; Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool; 9 a.m.; Burns Court Cinema
March 17: Main Stage Event; Openers Dick Hyman and Diego Figueiredo and headliners Kurt Elling, Charlie Hunter and the Superblue Band; 6-9:15 p.m.; Nathan Benderson Park
March 17: Late Night Open Jazz Jam led by La Lucha; 9:30 p.m. to midnight; Nathan Benderson Park
March 18: Main Stage Event; Openers Houston Person and Tony Monaco and headliner Paquito D’Rivera; 6-9:15 p.m.; Nathan Benderson Park
March 18: Late Night Open Jazz Jam led by Synia Carroll; 9:30 p.m. to midnight; Nathan Benderson Park