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Lakecia Benjamin in during a piano solo

This September, Tri-C had its 42nd annual JazzFest, and even in a world of stress, the show went on. This year’s festival took place on September 11th and 12th at Cain Park in Cleveland Heights. In years prior, fans and huge audiences would gather at Playhouse Square to watch big-name artists perform, but this year, the focus was on the next generation. This year’s non-commercial lineup featured some bright young stars like New York-born saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin and fellow New Yorker, Samara Joy. When speaking to Terri Pontremoli, the Executive and Artistic Director of the event, she explained that this year, she wanted JazzFest to “have an emphasis on young, deserving musicians.” “With no big names, this year’s festival was to celebrate the art form of jazz as well as the true jazz fans.” The festival sold 1,700 seats, despite the new format and location. As Terri told me, “Most of our ticket buyers come from Cleveland Heights and there’s a cultural history in jazz in Heights.”

Sound engineer for the main stage

The full lineup consisted of vocalist Samara Joy, saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin, five-time Grammy nominee pianist Christian Sands, Dominick Farinacci’s a Moment in Cleveland, and the Spanish Harlem Orchestra on Saturday, followed by trumpeter Marquis Hill, trumpeter and vocalist Bria Skonberg, pianist Emmet Cohen, Harp vs. Harp Edmar Castaneda and Gregoire Maret, and Grammy winning vocalist Catherine Russell on Sunday. Between the ten-act lineup over the two days, the jazz talk tent, food trucks, vendors, and student performers, there was more than plenty to completely Jazz-out for the weekend.

With the future of COVID-19 unpredictable and the New York flash flooding causing turmoil, Terri was originally worried about the outcome of 2021’s JazzFest, “You just don’t know if people are going to come, if they’re going to like it, or even if the artists from New York, which is flooding, are going to make it.” But as she later observes, “I think everyone just let the music heal everyone that was there.” Terri, a violinist who grew up around Jazz herself, stands firm in her excitement for the next generation of artists, and for the loyalty to longtime JazzFest fans, “You have to set up the next generation of Jazz to have an audience. It is about nurturing new artists and giving the audience new stuff and the stuff they have always known. You really have to balance it.”

Christian Sands

In a year that made events like JazzFest seemingly impossible, Tri-C, Terri, all the people who made this year’s festival possible and Cleveland’s appreciation for Jazz made it possible for not only tradition but also progression to happen.

Rust Belt Monster Collective painting a mural during JazzFest

Whether Cain Park or Playhouse Square, it is clear Cleveland and Tri-C love Jazz and love JazzFest. Keep an eye on next year’s event when it is announced. You might just hear something you will love.

Photos and contributions from Brandon Rush and Eden Amador-Gorby.

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