San Jose, CA

The great San Jose Jazz Summer Fest is this weekend - who’s behind it making it all go?

Vic Aquino

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Judith Hill & Common(Images from Jesse Cutler)

After the 2020-cancel-everything-year, the San Jose Jazz Festival, a.k.a. the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, is set to return to its in-person, multi-day gathering of diverse musical acts in downtown San Jose this weekend.

From this Friday, August 13th through Sunday, August 15th, dozens of local, national and world-renowned music artists will be scheduled across six indoor and outdoor stages in and around Plaza de César Chavez Park.

Along with the rich musical lineup, one should expect the sense of musical discovery and a holistic experience that has kept it going for over 30 years in San Jose for residents and visitors alike.

Very much like the awareness and anticipation of experiencing a Michelin-rated restaurant, this festival of music is an audio sensory equivalent. It’s a must-experience live event and maybe a timely one at that.

San Jose native Brendan Rawson is the executive director of San Jose Jazz

Since 2012, Rawson has led his team of curators and resources that maintains the distinction and legacy of the organization.

"Growing up in the South Bay, this Summer Fest for the last 31 years has been part of my life for a long time,” shared Rawson. “The connection from just attending it so many years ago was just the scale of the experience with the multiple stages and the variety of music.”

As Rawson seems the perfect person to lead the program all these years, it was a roundabout journey to the helm of the organization and San Jose’s best-known event.

"My connection to San Jose Jazz came about circuitously. I was actually ‘loaned’ to the organization from another arts group called First Act Silicon Valley when San Jose Jazz was without a director,” said Rawson. “Basically, the board of directors for San Jose Jazz ended up asking if I’d like to stick around.”

Interestingly enough, Rawson’s first 10 years as the executive director sounds like just the start.

“Yeah, working around music every day,” added Rawson. “It’s pretty darn fortunate.”

A unique venue

In perhaps the best visual epicenter of San Jose, the venue is a perfect blend of modern and organic surroundings. Around the oval shape of César Chavez Park are the clean-lined buildings, then the inner ring of 40 foot-plus trees and a middle grassy area that all provides a cool, shady and safe atmosphere. The other stages outside that ring still maintain the feel and connection of the event just as well.

But what is also a top priority with Rawson, and on the back of everyone’s minds, is safety and security of the event, so attendees can savor the purity of the experience.

“The intriguing challenge has been these huge macro things like wildfires, the pandemic and unfortunately, mass shootings that impact us all,” said Rawson. “We are definitely answering that challenge and making sure we adapt in every way to create a safe and welcoming environment.”

Rawson went on to include that attendees should prepare themselves by reading up on the festival FAQs on the San Jose Jazz site before arriving this weekend.

An informed audience is an audience rewarded

"I believe the first thing that should come to mind for attendees is ‘discovery,’” Rawson shared. “There's a wide variety of music we're presenting and a majority of it a lot of folks are not going to know, unless they have prior knowledge of these artists. But I think with the long run of this festival, we provide an opportunity to offer a great engagement with our audience that they've come to expect, along with the overall experience.”

Looking at the festival lineup, performers that immediately pop out are famed rapper and actor, Common, along with Judith Hill and Morris Day. Also as compelling are musical powerhouses from the Bay Area: Goapele, Pete Escovedo and the Chris Cain Band.

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Morris Day(Images from Jesse Cutler)

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Delve deeper into the Summer Fest lineup for more music gold.

“A lot of people know and trust in our curation,” Rawson said proudly. “They know there's gonna be a lot of acts that's not even your flavor, but if you're curious and like to explore, you’re going to discover some good, new music.”

Rawson adds, “It's always fun turning people onto a band they never knew of and then it becomes a band that they dig and look for next year.”

“By doing that little bit of homework exploring all the artists before you visit, it should enhance your experience when you come,” stated Rawson. “We’ve included their biographical info and videos on our website.”

The unsung curation team behind the scenes building the festival lineup is a network of a half-dozen people spearheaded by artistic director Bruce Labadie. Labadie has been with the festival since the very beginning.

“Bruce has a long history of music programming. He also used to work for the Mountain Winery and Montalvo,” said Rawson. “He's been around the music industry for decades and has a great network.”

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Ozomatli(Images from Jesse Cutler)

Gems of the Bay Area

"We’re always reflecting the Bay Area by the nature of a festival of this size,” says Rawson describing the diversity and cultures of the Bay. “We really have a great opportunity to spotlight a range of local musical forms and artists. Over half of the artists are Bay Area-based and I would say that cuts across all the different genres: jazz, salsa, blues, etc."

The Latinx communities are also vast and broad in the Bay Area and Rawson is as quick to point out its focus at the festival.

“On the mainstage this year is the Pete Escovedo Jazz Orchestra. We have to honor Pete for his contributions to Bay Area music,” proclaimed Rawson. “Our Latinx stage is headed by our curator Betto Arcos. Betto takes particular pride and responsibility to know that entire realm of the Bay Area and beyond.”

Rawson also takes that same pride and responsibility to reflect as much as possible of what is the Bay Area in terms of music.

“I think it all mirrors the Bay Area and how culturally rich we are,” continued Rawson. “I would hope that San Jose Jazz always maintains a great job representing all the musical interests and musical styles that are present here.”

Asked to how Rawson envisions the future of the festival in the coming decades, he reminisces the past and acknowledges a continued responsibility.

“You know, going to the San Jose Jazz Summer Festival should always give you a good take on where and what Northern California is about and where its music and cultures are at,” Rawson contemplates. “I would love it if San Jose Jazz kept continuing to build a strong sense of community awareness and a wide breadth of musical experiences.”

For the next generations of residents and visitors, expect the San Jose Jazz Summer Fest and the entire organization itself to continue to be one of the cornerstone legacies of not just San Jose, but the entire Bay Area for many more years to come.

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A 50+ year San Jose-native focusing on social awareness, social good, social impact and the hidden gems and treasures of the area. Freelance journalist & sports contributor to SB Nation, Bay Area News Group & SF 49ers (@VicD_SJ on Twitter).

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