Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival proves that jazz is still thriving

October 6, 2017

I’d begun to think that jazz was dead. That had seemed to be the cultural opinion, too. One of last year’s Oscar contenders, “La La Land,” had the death of the genre as a major theme. Even the way we talk about jazz is with an eye to the past—about the greats who’ve been dead for decades. But that narrative just isn’t true.

I arrived late to the jazz party. It was only earlier this year, in February, that I got to witness my first live performance in New York. It blew me away, and I’ve been fascinated by the genre ever since. But I couldn’t help noticing at the show that everyone else was at least a decade older than me—it definitely didn’t feel like a musical genre for young people.

It’s hard to be a young jazz aficionado in this city. Most (if not all) jazz clubs in the Boston area are twenty-one plus, or, if not that, require expensive dinner reservations. It’s almost as if the community has intentionally closed itself off to a younger audience. This doesn’t necessarily mean that the youth aren’t there, just that they’ve been underserved.

In this respect, last Saturday’s free, all-ages Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival was encouraging. It was awesome to see such a diverse crowd—people of all ages, races, genders etc., come together to celebrate the genre. The ample turnout was evidence enough that there are still plenty of people who love jazz.

The festival was set on six blocks of Columbus Avenue south of Mass Ave that had been closed to traffic. There were stages at the respective north and south ends of the area, and people were free to travel back and forth between them. Vendors sold memorabilia and food. There was Caribbean cuisine (I had some delicious curried goat), barbecue and traditional street fair. There were also booths for cultural institutions, such as WBUR and JazzBoston, to connect with the community. Events at the festival ranged from a drum-off hosted by the Blue Man Group to a special “KidsJam” area presented by Berklee’s Music Education Department.

Though it was your typical dreary Boston day, the weather varying from a drizzle to an outright downpour, there was still a sizeable crowd, with people putting on ponchos or holding up umbrellas in order to enjoy the open air music. The artists, too, didn’t let the rain get them down. The performers—one in particular—effectively demonstrated just why jazz is still so relevant and important today.

The highlight of the show for me was the stellar performance by recent Berklee graduate Emily Estefan. Estefan unequivocally showed that the genre is in very capable hands. For over an hour, she brought a dynamic energy and varied musical palette that captivated the crowd.

The daughter of famed Cuban-American musicians Gloria and Emilio Estefan (her mother was in attendance Saturday), 22-year-old Emily Estefan proved without a doubt that jazz is very much alive. A talented multi-instrumentalist, she played drums and guitar, in addition to providing leading vocals. Her voice was incredible, with a high vocal range, deftly projecting and holding our attention through the pouring rain.

Estefan performed original works, in addition to covers like Michael Jackson’s “Rock with You.” Her songs were individually distinct, blending influences from Prince to Santana to the Talking Heads. This mix of the old and new, the implementation of soul and R&B and funk and pop infused with Latin jazz roots felt compelling and fresh. The highlight of her show was the medley of songs from women that she felt were her inspirations, spanning a century, from Billie Holliday to Beyoncé. Her live rendition of “Crazy in Love” was amazing.

Like any artform, jazz has to evolve to stay relevant. But that’s what it’s good at—the genre is adept at co-opting and celebrating new sounds. If jazz inspired rock and R&B and hip-hop, then I think we’ve finally reached the point at which it’s now taking back these sounds, adding them back into the mix.

At its core, jazz is ephemeral; it’s about the moment. Jazz creates a powerful, shared experience, in which people are actively listening and improvising, expressing themselves and collaborating in a dynamic, nonverbal way. It’s a conversation, and last week’s festival showed me that it’s still in dialogue with both the past and the future.

After attending the Berklee Beantown Jazz Festival, I’m no longer under the impression that jazz is on the verge of dying out or becoming obsolete. It was evident that a diverse, large group of people are very still passionate about making and consuming the musical genre, and that, as it evolves, it’s going to become even greater. My only hope is that someone figures out how to host jazz artists in the area in a way that people of all ages can attend and hear this amazing artform, so we can ensure that there’s an audience for years to come.

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