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Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival

by Jeff Nania on June 27, 2012

Diana Krall

Freihofer’s Saratoga Jazz Festival is celebrating its 35th year this weekend, and it has a lineup of stellar acts including nine Grammy Award winners. From jazz-scene mainstays like Diana Krall (pictured) and Christian McBride, to up and comers Trombone Shorty and Esperanza Spalding, this fest has it all. As well as the mainstream acts that keep the aficionados coming back, there are also pop culture icons like Chris Botti, funkateers like Maceo Parker, and hip-hop infused rumba beats from the great Pedrito Martinez.

Of course the Festival has a lot to live up to. It started its very first year with legends like Herbie Hancock and Sonny Rollins, and continued to draw incredible acts like Ray Charles, and Miles Davis. Herbie, Sonny, Ray, and Miles are all representative of a group of artists that are largely no longer with us—those who reached “single name” status.

Originally called “Newport Jazz Festival—Saratoga,” it was founded by George Wein—the same man to create the Newport Jazz Festival, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival. The festival is now produced by Danny Melnick of Absolutely Live Entertainment, who says that “the lessons I learned from George allow me to do what I am doing now. No two-ways about it.” Wein’s formula for success seemed quite simple: Melnick says “he loves the music and the musicians and he is very passionate about sharing his love of the music with as many people as possible.”

The festival started at an opportune time. “When the festival was created in 1978,” Melnick says, “there was nothing else like it within a 250-mile radius. No Montreal, no Syracuse, no Rochester, no Burlington, no Caramoor, no Litchfield, nothing really at Tanglewood, no outdoor summer concert series, no nothing. George [Wein] said it was a cultural wasteland. Since then, more and more and more competition. I can mention 15 other festivals or venues in addition to the ones above.”

The “encore series at the gazebo” is a special feature this year, and a thoughtful way of giving back to the enthusiastic fans that this festival attracts. Some of the “most popular, most requested young artists ever to appear on the festival’s gazebo stage,” including Jeremy Pelt and Edmar Castaneda, will return to make their mark this year.

While many a festival has come and gone, this one has continued to follow a winning formula.

Part of that formula has been teaming up with a corporate sponsor that is proud of its association with the arts. Freihofer’s, Melnick says, has been just that for the past 15 years.

In addition to the acts it draws, part of the festival’s success comes from the fact that it is held in the Saratoga Spa State Park. “I love the feeling of being on the SPAC lawn,” Melnick says, “with the amazing trees, and just chillin’ out.” The scenery is surely part of the allure of this festival. There is the amphitheater, the gazebo stage, the arts and crafts vendors, and the park itself that make it so inviting. The lawn is jazzily referred to as “the Hang” and is arguably the best place to do some people watching from your lawn chairs.”

Melnick says he is “already thinking about the 2013 festival and will start to poke around this summer. The process always evolves each year depending on who is touring, what special or unique ‘packages’ or ‘all star’ bands might be offered. It never ends up the way you think when you start.”

The 35th annual Saratoga Jazz Festival will take place this Saturday and Sunday at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center in the Saratoga Spa State Park. Tickets are $55 for lawn seats, and $50 to $80 for seats in the amphitheater. For more, visit spac.org or call 587-3330.