The genre of free jazz might not be to everyone’s taste, but Sandy Fortier is hoping free-and-about jazz will be a sweet-sounding temptation for all audiences.
The director of Juneau Jazz & Classics said the annual six-day festival starting Monday is bringing its first large assortment of touring musicians since the COVID-19 pandemic, and is offering locals the first musical tours in four years with separate classical and blues cruises Saturday.
The festival founded in 1987 was canceled in 2020 and last year returned as a hybrid live/online event with only one visiting artist.
“This year we’re bringing in 27, so we’re ramping out,” Fortier said. In choosing the lineup “some of them we scheduled from 2020 which we had to cancel, so we wanted to honor those commitments.”
Among this year’s featured artists are five-time Juno Award-winning jazz flutist Jane Bunnett with her six-women Maqueque group performing Afro/Cuban music, blues harmonica player Phil Wiggins, “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band who “are just as comfortable performing the work of Charlie Parker as they are of Mozart and Sousa,” and The U.S. Pacific Fleet Band’s Big Wave Brass Band specializing in New Orleans jazz.
Ticket sales for this year’s festival are generally the same or better than recent pre-pandemic years, said Fortier, who served as the festival’s director from 2009-2011 and returned in 2019. Two concerts Monday evening featuring the international award-winning Arianna String Quartet at the Shrine of Saint Therese are sold out, as is a “Classical Cocktails” concert Wednesday evening featuring the quartet collaborating with festival Artistic Director Zuill Bailey who is a Grammy Award-winning cellist.
“I think we’re back to normal,” Fortier said. “I was surprised at how quick the concerts sold out. I wish the cruises were stronger, but maybe people are waiting for the weather or have COVID concerns.”
Among the featured concerts she said she’s most excited about is Bunnett’s group since a sponsorship by IBEW Local 1547 means tickets for the 7:30 p.m. Friday show at Centennial Hall are $10 — and the large venue means plenty are available for the dancing-encouraged performance.
But for people who find even that too much for their budget — or at least music they’re willing to spend money on — the group and many other musicians will be performing free concerts at various venues throughout the week.
“I really want people who haven’t come to a concert to try out and come to a free concert at least,” Fortier said, “I know some people think ‘jazz, oh that’s not for me.’ That’s what I want people to try out.”
Among the free concerts are brown bag shows with various artists from noon-1 p.m. every weekday at the State Office Building, rush hour concerts featuring the two military ensembles from 5:30-6:30 p.m. Tuesday and Thursday (both at the Juneau Arts and Culture Center), a jazz jam with locals at 6:30 p.m. Thursday at the culture center, and a family concert with “The President’s Own” United States Marine Band at 10:30 a.m. at the Mendenhall Valley Public Library. There is also a “Choose Your Own Jazz Adventure” workshop where people can learn and improvise with members of the Marine band from 1-2:30 p.m. Saturday at Little Blue.
At the other end of the price spectrum are the music cruises on Saturday departing from Don D. Statter Harbor. The first is an “up close and personal” voyage with Bailey from 2-4 p.m., the second featuring the Phil Wiggins Blues House Party group from 8-10 p.m.
“We couldn‘t think of a better group to help us bring the blues cruise back” the festival‘s website notes and Fortier the four-year gap since the last of what’s traditionally been an annual highlight was due to more than the pandemic.
“One year had to be canceled because of the weather and then there was the pandemic,” she said. “Now people are requesting we do it again, so we’re going to chance it.”
JJ&C did stage an in-person Fall Festival featuring acclaimed visiting performers from Sept. 29-Oct. 2 of last year, but strict pandemic rules including audience members to present vaccination cards and prohibiting people under 12 were in place. Fortier said face masks and hand sanitizer will be available at venues during the coming week, but responsibility rather than rules is the policy.
“Mostly we’re asking people to not come to the concerts if they are ill and we’re working on maximizing ventilation at the concerts,” she said.
But lingering effects of the pandemic are a concern when it comes to the dozens of volunteers who are essential for ensuring smooth sounds, Fortier said.
“If they can’t come it’s hard to fill in at the last minute with the small staff we have,” she said. “I think it would be nice to have an on-call group in case somebody gets sick or things happen.”
Information about volunteering, tickets and other festival information is available at https://www.jazzandclassics.org.
• Contact reporter Mark Sabbatini at firstname.lastname@example.org.