Sunday, May 21, 2006

Jazz Festivals Are Spreading Through the Suburbs

Joe Lovano is the artistic director of the Caramoor Jazz Festival and will probably sit in with some performers at the event in Katonah, N.Y.

Joe Lovano is a jazz saxophonist at the peak of his powers. Seasoned enough at age 53 to have won a bucketful of awards, yet vigorous enough to be blowing as hard as ever, he spends most of the year performing in premier concert halls and clubs around the world and in the mecca of jazz, New York City.

But come summer, Mr. Lovano puts on another hat: artistic director of the Caramoor Jazz Festival, a two-day event on a former estate in the Westchester village of Katonah. The festival is one of dozens of outdoor summer jazz events now dotting the New York suburbs that attract top players and programmers.

"The scene has been growing through the years," Mr. Lovano said. "It can only get better."

McCoy Tyner will be playing at the Caramoor Jazz Festival.Caramoor is a case in point. In 1993, its first year, the event drew 300 people for a one-day series of piano duos held in the 600-seat Spanish Courtyard, said Jim Luce, the festival's producer. These days, with an expanded schedule (the last Saturday in July and the first in August) and performance space (the 1,750-seat Venetian Theater), the festival attracts about 3,000 people, he said, and could top that this year with a rare appearance by the septet of the pianist McCoy Tyner and a tribute to the saxophonist Joe Henderson. The pianist Kirk Lightsey will play another tribute, to the pianist John Hicks, who was scheduled to perform but who died this month.

A bigger event, the Litchfield Jazz Festival in Connecticut, draws about 10,000 people to the Goshen Fairgrounds, said Vita West Muir, the festival's executive director. That is more than double the number who came in 1996, the festival's first year, when Diana Krall, then a little-known singer and pianist, won raves on the original, smaller stage at the White Memorial Foundation. This year, the festival will run from Aug. 4 through 6 and will feature 14 acts, including the saxophonist Lee Konitz and Dr. John.

One of the newer events in the metropolitan area is the OSPAC Jazz Festival, a two-day affair held at the performing arts center in West Orange, N.J., named for Oskar Schindler. It, too, is growing, with attendance rising to about 5,000 from 3,000 in its three years of existence, said Kate Baker, a singer and the festival's executive director.

Unlike the Caramoor and Litchfield festivals, the West Orange concerts, which are to be held on Sept. 9 and 10 this year, are free. All three festivals run from afternoon to evening, but not all outdoor jazz events follow that format. Throughout July and August, a nonprofit group, Jazz Forum Arts, run by the trumpeter Mark Morganelli, will produce more than 40 concerts, mostly in the late afternoon or evening, in Westchester and Rockland Counties. That is up from the 24 concerts Mr. Morganelli put on when the series began six years ago.

The concerts, each of which attracts about 1,000 people, are free and generally feature musicians on the brink of stardom, though veterans like the saxophonist Lou Donaldson and Mr. Morganelli himself will perform this year.

Mr. Luce, the Caramoor producer, said that Mr. Morganelli has "single-handedly been able to present music in places where you'd never think you could do it," citing parts of Mount Vernon and Yonkers that ordinarily do not see shows of similar caliber.

The obstacles have been many. Mr. Morganelli hauls his own sound system to the concerts, and more than once has run into logistical problems.

But those issues pale next to financial concerns. Indeed, as he sat in his office in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., last month, Mr. Morganelli had just received a call from the mayor of Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., telling him that, after paying for concerts on Thursdays through July and August for six straight years, the village no longer had the money. Each concert costs upward of $4,000, and the decision left Mr. Morganelli scrambling to find a town to fill the scheduling hole.

Complaints about financial problems are a constant refrain of festival producers. On Long Island, the North Fork Bank Jazz Festival, which attracts some 6,000 people over three days to a stage in the Planting Fields Arboretum State Historic Park in Oyster Bay, has had a series of banks come and go as major sponsors, said Maryann K. Beaumont, the festival's executive director.

This year, with concerts scheduled for Aug. 11 through 13 and performers like the saxophonist David Sanborn and the violinist Regina Carter on the bill, North Fork seemed to be settling in as sponsor. But the bank was acquired in March by Capital One, throwing into question next year's sponsorship, Ms. Beaumont said. The festival, which costs $150,000 to produce, is running a deficit, she said, and will be raising prices this year by as much as $10 a ticket.

The Preservation Hall Jazz Band will be a featured act at the North Fork Bank Jazz Festival in Oyster Bay, N.Y. Competition for corporate sponsorships of the arts generally, and for jazz programming specifically, has grown, Ms. Beaumont said. On Long Island, for example, the North Fork festival now vies for corporate dollars with jazz programming at the Inter-Media Art Center in Huntington.

Despite increased interest in recent years, jazz remains "almost as rarefied as classical music," said Ms. Muir of the Litchfield festival. Few summer festivals sell out. To help fill seats, some festivals present performers who stretch the definition of jazz but have broad commercial appeal, like Dionne Warwick, who will perform on opening night at Litchfield this year.

Others feature jazz acts with a strong dose of showmanship, like the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, which is scheduled to appear at the North Fork Bank event.

Mr. Lovano, in his third season as artistic director of Caramoor, says that joining the festival's programming team has given him the chance to present groups of various sizes and instrumentation to play material that he has recorded. Being near New York has also helped, he said, since so many top jazz musicians live in the region.

At the same time, getting out of the city inspires the musicians, Mr. Luce said. That was evident on a warm spring day recently as Mr. Lovano, tenor sax in hand, strolled the fragrant gardens among Caramoor's 90 acres. At one point he stopped to join Michael Barrett, Caramoor's chief executive and an accomplished pianist in his own right, on the Venetian Theater stage, in an impromptu take on a Beethoven sonata.

Audiences can expect that kind of spontaneity at the festival this year, Mr. Lovano said. Though he is not scheduled to lead a group, he will probably sit in with others, perhaps with McCoy Tyner.

Mr. Tyner, credited with revolutionizing the role of pianist as a member of the John Coltrane Quartet in the 1960's and as a leader of his own groups, is no stranger to festivals near New York. Last year, he played at the Litchfield festival, where he was joined onstage by the tap dancer Savion Glover.

At Caramoor this year, Mr. Tyner's septet will close the festival, revisiting music he recorded in the early 60's. Mr. Tyner said his interpretations would reflect his growth as a player — and the outdoor chemistry.

"Usually when you go to a particular place, there's a feeling that's there," he said. "It's like stepping into an environment. You never know how it's going to affect you."

By PHILLIP LUTZ - nytimes.com

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