Today it was announced that after seven years, the Sonoma Jazz Festival is pulling the plug. As a jazz fan, I have no immediate reaction to the news other than this: good riddance.
I would have had no real problem with the Sonoma Jazz Festival if the organizers had simply dropped the word “jazz” from its name. But they refused to do so. Instead, the Sonoma Jazz Festival siphoned shamelessly from the cultural cachet of the word “jazz,” presented wheezing baby-boomer classic rock acts and swirled it all down with Cabernet and a promise of doing good for the local economy and school music programs.
Yes, they donated money to local schools. But in booking the festival, they rarely honored their own mission statement to “present and preserve jazz.” Their headliners included Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, Crosby Stills & Nash, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gipsy Kings, Chris Isaak, Joe Cocker and Kool & the Gang.
Nobody but an idiot or an asshole would ever call these acts jazz. It’d be like a “Sonoma Hip-Hop Festival” with the Barenaked Ladies, Limp Bizkit and Jack Johnson. Or a “Sonoma Farm-to-Table Festival” with In-n-Out Burger and Taco Bell. A “Sonoma Film Festival” that screened reality TV shows.
By continuing to call their festival a jazz festival, the Colorado-based organizers insulted the art form of jazz and, by association, embarrassed Sonoma County. It only got worse with the piddly concession of adding a “+” to the name. More then a few local jazz musicians I know joked that the festival was “Sonoma Jazz Minus,” except they weren’t really jokes. Jokes are supposed to be funny.
This is not to denigrate the worthy efforts of many locals who worked hard to make the festival what it was, some of whom actively pushed to get the name changed. And I would be remiss not to mention the few jazz and jazz-related acts that played the big tent in the “Field of Dreams”—Herbie Hancock, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and openers like Julian Lage and Hiromi come to mind.
But they all seemed like aberrant curiosities in Sonoma, politely endured instead of appreciated. In 2008, after Herbie Hancock opened his set with the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged wine country dilettantes who’d been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.
My very first experience in the cavernous, 3,000-seat tent also comes to mind—plunking down $110 for seats far away from the stage for Tony Bennett—and how it was marred by a well-heeled woman behind me blathering loudly on her phone, too bored to go through the motions of paying attention to one of America’s greatest song stylists. She eventually stumbled off into the wine lounge and never came back. Looks like the Sonoma Jazz Festival is following suit.
On Friday, May 21, Crosby Stills & Nash (anyone see their seemingly unrehearsed tour kickoff at the Wells Fargo Center two years ago?) headline the Sonoma Jazz Festival, or the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival, or, as it seems to be called now, SonomJaZZ+! Opening the show will be it’s-funny-that-we-need-to-point-out-that-she’s-a jazz singer Lizz Wright, who appeared with Herbie Hancock in Sonoma in 2008.
On Saturday, May 22, Earth, Wind and Fire will headline in the giant 3,800-capacity tent (will they play “Come on Feet” from Sweet Sweetback’s Badass Song?), with the openers being “a Latin Jazz supergroup—we can’t give you their name yet.” (Malo? El Chicano? Azteca? War? Tierra? The Fania Allstars?)
As the Santa Rosa City Schools wrestle with budget cuts in music programs, maybe it’s time for them to think about hosting a quasi-jazz festival too—the Sonoma festival has so far raised $460,000 for Sonoma Valley schools in its first five years. (Come on, Mark Wardlaw! Book Rick Springfield and Joan Baez! Call it jazz, baby!)
Tickets to CS&N go on sale to the general public this Friday, Feb. 19, with a special locals-only deal on Thursday for those with a Sonoma mailing address. For more info, hit up the Sonoma Jazz+ Festival site.
The lineup for the Fourth Annual Sonoma Jazz Festival has been announced. Let the bickering begin!
Thursday, May 22: Kool and the Gang
Friday, May 23: Herbie Hancock
Saturday, May 24: Diana Krall
Sunday, May 25: Bonnie Raitt, Keb’ Mo
Yup—as in each of the first three years of the festival, there’s a couple of acts in the Memorial Day Weekend lineup who could hardly be classified as “jazz.” At this point, it’s a local tradition that seems frivolous to argue, but it nonetheless consistently succeeds in getting hardcore jazz fans riled up to the nth degree.
Steve Winwood and Boz Scaggs, both headliners at the 2005 inaugural festival, rose the eyebrows early. Steve Miller and B.B. King stoked the fumes in 2006. Last year may have been the harshest of all: LeAnn Rimes and Michael McDonald.
Maybe that’s why festival directors have changed the name – slightly. Much like the Strictly Bluegrass Festival in Golden Gate Park became “Hardly Strictly Bluegrass,” the Sonoma Jazz Festival is officially known as “Sonoma Jazz +.”
As residents of the “Jazz” arena, both Diana Krall and Herbie Hancock are making return appearances at the festival, with the indefatigable Hancock recently handed a what-the-hell Album of the Year Grammy Award for his Starbucks-friendly sort-of-Joni-Mitchell tribute River: The Joni Letters.
Kool and the Gang, Bonnie Raitt and Keb Mo are gonna have to be content with the “+” category, although after scoping out the crowd in previous years, I hardly think that the average Sonoma Jazz attendee will mind all that much. As for the expensively-dressed and well-Chardonnayed woman sitting behind us last year who continually talked on her cell phone, well, I doubt she’d even notice.
But I have to personally hand it to the directors of this crazy weekend festival. Whatever your take on their choice of booking, they’re bringing world-class talent to an event with an impeccably well-run yet laid-back atmosphere—I mean jeez, it’s held in a tent on a baseball diamond, fer cryin’ out loud. The mood around the festival is jovial and swank, the shows are often sold out, and everyone generally leaves happy.
Here’s another thing you can’t argue with: to reward local residents, tickets go on sale in the town of Sonoma on Saturday, March 8 at the Sonoma Community Center from 2-6pm. Out-of-towners, positively hungry to boogie down to “Ladies’ Night” and “Celebration,” have to wait until the nationwide release of tickets, two days later, on March 10. Pricing and ticket info for the general public is served up here, but the March 8 pre-sale for locals is a strictly in-the-know kind of thing. Cool deal.