The Atlanta Jazz Festival at 42

Makaya McCraven, Joel Ross, Kandace Springs, and more offer a look at the shape of jazz to come

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Photo credit: Courtesy Atlanta Jazz Festival
PYRAMIDS: Composer and trumpet player Russell Gunn leads the Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra on the Meadow Stage Sunday, May 26, at 9 p.m.

The Atlanta Jazz Festival returns to Piedmont Park Memorial Day Weekend, May 25-26. This year marks the 42nd return for the free outdoor festival, and if there’s a theme behind its 2019 programming, it is simply to highlight emerging artists.

”I like to explore what’s different in the jazz world, but personally, I feel like I’m learning more about jazz every year,” says Camille Love, director of the Mayor’s Office of Cultural Affairs. “Atlanta is a city with a lot of young creatives, and these artists are like their peers. So, we want to be sure that we are educating them as to who will be representing jazz in their future.”

A quick scroll through the festival’s lineup reveals a curious mix of performers spread across three stages throughout the weekend. Composer and trombonist Delfeayo Marsalis — brother to Wynton, Branford, and Jason — shares billing with Chicago-based drummer, producer, and winner of Jazz FM 2019 International Jazz Act of the Year award Makaya McCraven. Gospel and jazz vocalist Lizz Wright, vibes player, composer, and two-time Thelonious Monk Institute National All-Star Joel Ross, and Nashville-based singer and pianist Kandace Springs represent a bold push and pull between musical styles, creating a festival dynamic where individual strengths are truly the star of the show.

GOOD VIBES: Chicago-based percussionist and vibes player Joel Ross plays the Park Drive Stage Saturday at 2:30 p.m. Photo courtesy Atlanta Jazz Festival


Keeping such a tight focus on up-and-coming talent is a bit of a shift in direction for the Atlanta Jazz Fest. After all, previous years have seen legendary artists ranging from Pharoah Sanders and McCoy Tyner to Charles Lloyd and Bebel Gilberto gracing the stage along with the burgeoning acts. Love says, however, that honing so much young energy and talent is a deliberate part of this year’s design.

“We like to think of ourselves as the festival where you know you’re going to see your favorite artist — even if you don’t know them yet,” she explains. “If you look at our history, you’ll see that we’ve presented a lot of artists before they blew up.”

Love has been involved with the Atlanta Jazz Fest for 20 years and says that keeping the aim fixed on a jazz format is one of her top priorities. While other festivals, such as the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, have broadened their booking to include fewer jazz artists and more traditional rock and jam band acts, Atlanta can afford to stick to jazz. “The beauty of our festival is that, because it’s free, we don’t have to rely on ticket sales,” Love says. “We can present to Atlanta audiences a true cultural experience, one that educates them while presenting jazz in its purest form.”

Despite placing such a strong emphasis on young talent, there are also a few of what Love affectionately refers to as “older jazz heads.” Marcus Strickland “Twi-Life” featuring Pharoahe Monch and Christie Dashiell, Richard Bona, and Lil’ John Roberts anchor the fest with a wide net of experience and style in their stage presence and repertoire.

In 2018, the Atlanta Jazz Fest drew 150,000 visitors to Piedmont Park and generated $15.5 million for the city. That means money spent by people flying and driving in from out of town, riding MARTA, and using rideshare services. Add that to all of the people staying in hotels and eating in local restaurants, and it’s a major boon for the city.

Amid all of this bustling holiday weekend activity, Love has crafted a lineup that spotlights Atlanta-bred artists. On Sunday, the festival’s main Meadow Stage will feature exclusively hometown acts, culminating with 9 p.m. performances by Russell Gunn and the Royal Krunk Orkestra performing an original suite titled “Pyramids,” inspired by a recent trip to Egypt.

To raise awareness for Jazz Fest, the city is hosting various other events around the city, including 31 Days of Jazz, which books daily jazz-related live music performances all over town, from restaurants and art galleries to neighborhood parks. The performances will run May 1-31. There’s also MARTA Mondays, which plants jazz musicians at select train stations around the city.

After 42 years, it’s the cultural presence and the ties with the community that Love sees as the Atlanta Jazz Fest’s enduring legacy.

“There’s a connection between the history of the Jazz Festival and the city’s live music scene, relative to the hip-hop scene,” Love says. “These are young men and women whom, when they were children, benefited by seeing live music. They didn’t have to pay for it. They just had to have a parent who wanted a nice experience for their family. So they got to see people perform from an early age. The longevity of the Jazz Festival has contributed a lot to the music industry that has grown out of Atlanta and Georgia.”

GRACE: Gospel and jazz vocalist Lizz Wright plays the Meadow Stage Saturday at 9 p.m. Photo by Jesse Kitt

Saturday, May 25
Meadow Stage
Alicia Olatuja: 1 p.m.
Stefon Harris + Blackout: 3 p.m.
Rhonda Ross & Rodney Kendrick: 5 p.m.
Marcus Strickland ‘Twi-Life’ feat. Pharoahe Monch and Christie Dashiell: 7 p.m.
Lizz Wright: 9 p.m.

Oak Hill Stage
Ofer Assaf Quartet: 1:30 p.m.
Delfeayo Marsalis: 3:30 p.m.
Takuya Kuroda: 5:30 p.m.
Richard Bona: 7:30 p.m.

UNIVERSAL BEING: Chicago-based composer, percussionist, and “beat scientist” Makaya McCraven plays the Park Drive Stage Saturday at 6:30 p.m. Photo by David Marques

Park Drive Stage
Avery Dixon, Saxophone Extraordinaire: 12:30 p.m.
Joel Ross Good Vibes: 2:30 p.m.
Christian Sands: 4:30 p.m.
Makaya McCraven: 6:30 p.m.
Late Night Jazz Jam at Park Tavern feat. Lil’ John Roberts and the Senators: 11 p.m.

Sunday, May 26
Meadow Stage
The Milkshake Quintet: 1 p.m.
Alex Lattimore: 3 p.m.
Gary Motley: 5 p.m.
Rhonda Thomas: 7 p.m.
The Royal Krunk Jazz Orkestra: 9 p.m.

LIMINAL: OkCello (Okorie Johnson) plays the Oak Hill Stage Sunday at 3:30 p.m. Photo by Brock Scott

Oak Hill Stage
The Kenny Banks Jr. Trio: 1:30 p.m.
OKCello: 3:30 p.m.
Freelance: 5:30 p.m.
Kandace Springs: 7:30 p.m.

Park Drive Stage
Rialto Jazz for Kids: 12:30 p.m.
Nicole Banks Long: 2:30 p.m.
Slim Gambill: 4:30 p.m.
Michael Mayo: 6:30 p.m.

MARTA Mondays Schedule: Jazz up your afternoon commute

BRAND NEW HEART: Brenda Nicole Moorer plays Midtown Station May 20. Photo by Joeff Davis/CL File

Throughout the month of May, select MARTA stations around the city are hosting free live jazz performances.
Mon., May 6: The Jacob Deaton Trio plays Five Points Station 4-6 p.m.
Mon., May 13: Groove Centric plays College Park Station 4-6 p.m.
Mon., May 20: Brenda Nicole Moorer plays Midtown Station, 4-6 p.m.

Neighborhood Jazz Series
On Saturday, May 11, the Neighborhood Jazz Series of concerts kicks off at Washington Park, and continues every weekend throughout the month, leading up to the 42nd Atlanta Jazz Festival. All shows are free. 4-8 p.m.

May 11: Washington Park, Groove Centric and Julie Dexter.
May 12: Grant Park, Jacob Deaton Trio and Mabu's Ark Band.
May 18: John A. White Park, Distilled Butter Band and Brenda Nicole Moorer.
May 19: West Manor Park, Tony Hightower, Myrna Clayton.

For more information check out the Atlanta Jazz Festival website.

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