The Jazz Festival at 21

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Trombone Shorty performed last year to an enthusiastic crowd. (Photo by Mark Druziak/ RIJF)

If the CGI Rochester International Jazz Festival made it past its first two years, co-producer Marc Iacona believed, it could soar to new heights. 

Now, more than two decades later, it is one of the largest jazz festivals in the world, and in this region, the month of June has become synonymous with the sounds of music and dancing in the streets of downtown Rochester.

On June 21, the Jazz Fest will begin its 21st season. Hundreds of thousands of people are expected to flock to downtown Rochester—last year more than 211,000 people attended—over nine days. This year’s festival, which ends June 29, features a couple of new venues, the Inn on Broadway and the Duke at Sibley Square. 

More than 1,750 artists from 16 countries will offer their creative improvisations in 326 concerts this year. Over 100 free shows also await festival goers. 

Community support continues to remain strong. For instance, the Rochester Area Community Foundation presents 51 shows—a record—at the city of Rochester Jazz Street stage. Wegmans has sponsored five free jazz workshops led by visiting artists for music students. Jam sessions, a signature of most jazz festivals, will close out each night at the Hyatt Regency Rochester’s Astor on Main.

“Sustenance of support is crucial to our ability to continue to build on the festival’s success,” says John Nugent, co-producer and artistic director of the festival. “A well-run business becomes a brand. The RIJF brand is now well-established, going into its third decade. As with any event featuring artistic and creative endeavors, a cumulative effect of financial and intrinsic support is vital to the continued longevity of the jazz festival’s identity.”

Going back in time

Iacona and Nugent established the Jazz Fest in 2002, and it is produced by RIJF LLC, a private company that the co-producers own. In the first year, some 15,000 people attended the festival. 

Nugent remembers researching the area as the idea took shape. 

In 2013 fans flocked to see Trombone Shorty.
(Photo by Peter Parts/RIJF)

“I saw the layout of the East End, the many venues in close proximity, and believed in my heart that it would be possible to produce a long-time festival here with the right types of support given the history of music in this community,” he says.

“The major turning point was when Trombone Shorty played at our festival (in 2013) on the corner of East Ave and Alexander Street,” recalls Iacona, who is executive director. “There was a sea of happy people dancing and singing on East Ave from Alexander all the way down to Scio Street!”

For Nugent, it was RIJF’s seventh year that was a watershed moment.

“The level of committed sponsorships and attendance brought us to a place where I personally moved my family to the area and we’ve been here ever since,” he says. “RIJF requires sustained support of sponsors, government and patrons in order to deliver a broad-reaching, high-level artistic event every June.”

Gibbs Street quickly became known as Jazz Street. It wasn’t unusual to see Nugent sipping an early coffee at Java’s Cafe, a habit he still keeps.

Mike Calabrese, owner of Java’s Cafe, says he was all in when he heard the idea for the festival.

“I was all for it, 100 percent,” he says.

While he didn’t know what to expect, he has seen the increasing number of people on Jazz Street alone.

Gibbs Street during the jazz festival (Photo by Mark Druziak/RIJF)

Building community 

Java’s is not the only business that has come to know the co-producers well. Partners and sponsors cover the gamut—from state Sen. Jeremy Cooney to Delta, Pepsi, the city of Rochester, Yamaha and the DiMarco Group. M&T Bank is the presenting sponsor.

“The community knew we were for real, the sponsors have been confident about getting involved by tying their brand to us, and the local leaders were very aware of the positive economic impact the festival brings to Rochester, N.Y.,” Iacona says, referring to when the Jazz Fest got traction.

Since its inception, the economic impact has crossed the $200 million mark, RIJF estimates. 

Rochesterians are proud of the festival. In a 2006 post, just a few years after the Jazz Fest was launched, Greg Bell, who publishes Jazz Rochester, said “the event has become a boon to local businesses and an event of civic pride, one that the city can get behind. More importantly, it has done so while still being an event of artistic merit, one that doesn’t sell its audience short.”

Calabrese has seen an uptick in his business during the festival. 

“It is much busier,” he says.

Last year, one reddit user wrote, “I can’t recall in 63 years being so proud of this town as I was this past nine days. It didn’t matter whether or not you are a jazz fan. There was music for every taste and it was mostly free.

Pittsford Mendon High School Jazz Band (Photo by Thom Bell/RIJF)

“Music was coming from every nook and cranny! And from now on, any friends and relatives from out of town that want to visit, I will insist they come the last week of June. I can’t think of a better place to be this time of year,” the post concluded.

The RIJF community extends to artists, including elite performers as well, many of whom return to the festival. This year brings free headliner shows by Christone “Kingfish” Ingram, Chris Beard Band, Sheila E. and E-Train, Los Lonely Boys, Cimafiunk and the Meters in a celebratory performance at Parcel 5. Ticketed headliners include Taj Mahal (a huge fan favorite), Laufey, Samara Joy and John Oates. RIJF also draws acts that haven’t been to the festival before. 

Young musicians have become an integral part of the lineup. Jazz bands from Penfield High School, the Harley School, Pittsford Sutherland High School and Webster Thomas High School are some that are expected to perform on stage.

Some of the producers’ picks this year:

■ Christie Dashiell Quartet, a vocalist and composer who infuses jazz, rhythm and blues, gospel and soul in her work;

■ Stanley Jordan, a guitarist who brings a new show, “Stanley Jordan Plays Jimi”;

■ The Brain Cloud, featuring multi-instrumentalist Dennis Lichtman and vocalist Tamar Korn;

■ Jared Schonig, a Grammy Award-winning drummer, composer and bandleader; 

■ Ekep Nkwelle, a 24-year-old Cameroonian-American jazz vocalist;

■ Hazmat Modine, an eight-piece band with soul and groove; and

■ Canadian Jazz Collective, a new group of established and award-winning Canadian jazz artists.

Eye to the future

As they plan the festival, Iacona and Nugent are careful to keep the audience front and center. Artists include fan favorites, rising stars and legends. The Jazz Fest’s signature Club Pass, which Iacona says is second to none, this year features 216 shows at 12 venues with jazz artists from around the world. Attendees can buy a three- or nine-day pass. The value pass or $30 to $35 at the door makes it an affordable night of music.

Marc Iacona and John Nugent co-produce the Rochester Jazz Fest. (Photo by Tomas Flint)

Still, rising costs, an evolving music industry and pressure from larger organizations that can buy tours for headliners can pose challenges, the producers note.

“The landscape of the music industry has changed since the pandemic; costs have risen, yet we have worked diligently to offer our audiences a seriously great value with our Club Pass and more than 100 free shows,” Nugent says. “We do all we can to bring the highest level of artistry for the lowest possible cost to our audience. 

“It is indeed a challenge, yet we pride ourselves on meeting all challenges head on while keeping our focus on the ultimate goal—our audiences’ satisfaction that they have received a great value for a fair cost. Our motto is “No Problems, Only Solutions!”

As they think of new tech-related ideas, the co-producers’ focus on patrons remains steadfast. 

“If we implement new technologies that increase the pricing of Club Passes and headliner tickets, we must consider the potential impact on our audience,” says Iacona, adding that he doesn’t have a desire to grow without the ability to manage spending increases in the budget.

“Our goal is to be ‘best in class’ among jazz festivals,” he adds. “This is the town where I was raised, and I chose to invest in the Jazz Festival and several other startup businesses here.”

Even so, new ideas and concepts are always up for discussion. Nugent sees potential in further streamlining the ticketing process and audience participation.

“We are at capacity with all venues these days, so our desire is not to achieve greater attendance but a more finely-tuned operation,” he says. “It’s all about the music and the enjoyment of our audiences and artists. While I’m not native to Rochester, N.Y., and hail from a small fishing port, Newfoundland, Canada, I’m a very proud naturalized American citizen.”

Nugent and Iacona’s partnership and trust in each other’s vision is evident. Each compliments the other in realizing a singular vision: Making the Rochester International Jazz Festival one of the finest and most well-run festivals in the world.

As the days draw closer to the event—Gibbs Street is already closed to traffic—the anticipation and excitement among the producers is palpable.

“Personally, I am truly excited for the artists coming to our festival for their first time,” Nugent says. “They will perform for deeply educated audiences who have wide-open ears and hearts and will welcome the musicians with an electricity they won’t experience in many other places they perform.”

Says Iacona: “I look forward to all the artists we have programmed. Remember, it’s not about who you know, but who you don’t know!”

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected]

4 thoughts on “The Jazz Festival at 21

  1. I offer my enthusiastic endorsement of RIJF and appreciation for Smriti Jacob’s fine reporting. Our family enjoyed the first edition in 2002 beginning an annual tradition that many years ago included our daughter’s on-stage performance with the Brighton High School jazz band.
    Since moving to North Carolina in 2008, my wife, Kathy Pearce, and I have returned every year (except the Covid hiatus) for the full nine days of RIJF Club Pass—by my reckoning that is over 400 performances. We enjoy the music by night and visit with long-time Rochester friends by day.
    The producers, John Nugent and Marc Iacona, have brilliantly created a program that showcases a broad range of jazz and adjacent music styles. RIJF offers something for almost everyone with many free shows, a Club Pass that is the jazz world’s best music value, and headliners at the Eastman Theatre. The blend of sophisticated performances, street music, and food vendors transforms downtown into a wonderful, friendly party.
    I offer Beacon readers my observation about why RIJF continues to thrive and a suggestion for the future.
    RIJF is a long-lasting success because it was created and managed by two individuals with complimentary artistic and business expertise who are hands-on and constantly engage with festival goers. They have experimented and adapted to serve their customers and stakeholders. Their business model includes a mix of private sector sponsors, customer ticket/pass/merchandise purchases, and government (taxpayer) support.
    The broader lesson of RIJF is that private sector entrepreneurs are a fantastic resource to lead creative solutions that serve community needs.
    My suggestion is that RIJF can become a powerful magnet to attract visitors to Rochester. Could Visit Rochester package a three-day club pass with winery tours, various museums, lake outings, golf, excursions to Niagara Falls, and other summer attractions?
    As former Rochester residents, we drive north every June to enjoy attractions as varied as the Memorial Art Gallery, George Eastman House, Erie Canal walks, Finger Lakes lunches, Stever’s candies, Abbott’s frozen custard, Schutt’s Cider Mill, and Ontario’s Shaw Festival. There are jazz lovers within a one-day drive of Rochester who can be attracted by the wonderful, varied, affordable RIJF music and then spend money enjoying other delights of an Upstate summer.
    We’ll make the drive from North Carolina again this year to act upon proven RIJF wisdom, “Remember, it’s not about who you know, but who you don’t know!” We are grateful to John Nugent and Marc Iacona for two decades of musical inspiration.

  2. Having volunteered as a driver for the festival since 2012, I can tell you that artists appreciate the exemplary service they receive from the RIJF staff and volunteers and the level of appreciation from the audiences. So many artists have told us this festival is top notch and they LOVE performing at RIJF. Kudos to Marc and John and their whole staff … and to all the volunteers who love what we get to do for nine days!

  3. It’s time to celebrate this festival as the Juneteenth Jazz Festival. Jazz began with our African American brothers and sisters. The festival dates span this important American celebration. It just makes sense.

  4. Great article about the Rochester Jazz Fest. I have never attended although I live in the area and so reading about the festival’s history, its current state, and the impact on the Rochester community is wonderful. This kind of local journalism which is focused on positive resources, events, and activities in our community is very positive. The Rochester Jazz Festival is something to celebrate!

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