Music with a message: Northampton Jazz Festival takes over downtown next weekend with a celebration of music and civil rights

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 09-22-2023 5:05 PM

Max Roach is celebrated as one of the most influential drummers in jazz history, a pioneer of Bebop who led groundbreaking ensembles in every decade of his long career. As a drummer and a composer, he’s credited with making drums a more expressive and leading instrument in music.

And in the 1960s, Roach also became one of the first players to use music as a means of addressing the blossoming social issues of the era. His 1961 album “We Insist! Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite,” developed with lyricist Oscar Brown, was inspired in large part by the civil rights movement in the U.S. South.

That theme will animate the 2023 Northampton Jazz Festival (NJF), which returns to the city Sept. 29 and 30, bringing a range of local and national performers for mostly free shows. And the festival will conclude with a concert honoring Roach, whose centenary is fast approaching (he was born in January 1924).

Along with the concert celebrating Roach, to be performed by an all-star ensemble led by veteran drummer and South Hadley native Joe Farnsworth, the 2023 NJF features a number of other performers whose music addresses racial and equity issues and protest, as well as hope and dreams for a better future.

“This is all in keeping with the history of how a lot of musicians, especially African American musicians, showed their commitment to the civil rights movement through their work,” said Ruth Griggs, president of the NJF.

Griggs notes that the festival, which first took place in 2011 in a different format, was started in part to recognize jazz as an art form unique to the country, born from “Black indigenous people of color in America and influenced by the peoples of the African diaspora,” as the festival website puts it.

And to keep that art form alive, Griggs added, the festival’s goal has been to present musicians from different racial and ethnic backgrounds, “and in different stages of their careers.”

All told, 16 different ensembles will play over the course of the festival, which begins Sept. 29 at 4:30 p.m. with the “Jazz Strut,” for which several ensembles and artists will perform two-hour sets in various downtown restaurants and locales, up to 10:30 p.m.

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The focus here is on local groups such as the Jeff Holmes Big Band and the Rich Goldstein Quartet, says Griggs, followed by a NJF first, from 10:00 to 11:30 p.m. at the Toasted Owl: a jam session.

“It’s open to anyone, so if you’re a UMass music student, or you play in a high school jazz band, come on down,” she said.

A range of voices

“Jazz Fest Day,” on Sept. 30, features several performances in five downtown locations, including Pulaski Park, beginning at 10:45 a.m. when the Expandable Brass Band brings its good-time music in a march through downtown as a warmup for the day.

For the first time at the festival, Edwards Church will host concerts, starting at 12:45 p.m. with the Avery Sharpe Quartet & the Extended Family Choir. Sharpe, the Valley bassist and composer who has worked with greats like McCoy Tyner, Art Blakey and Dizzy Gillespie, will be joined by about 20 vocalists from the Springfield Symphony Chorus, said Griggs.

“It’s going to be a very gospel-based performance,” Griggs noted, as Sharpe will be offering material from his 2019 album “400,” for which he wrote an extended composition incorporating a variety of influences — spirituals, gospel, blues, ragtime and jazz — to tell the story of four centuries of African-American experience, beginning with the brutality of slavery.

“That’s just the kind of message we want to emphasize,” said Griggs. “Jazz has a wonderful tradition of responding to this kind of history.”

Following Sharpe’s set at Edwards Church will be a performance by powerhouse saxophonist, vocalist and composer Camille Thurman with the Darrell Green Quartet at 3:30 p.m. Thurman has been nominated for several awards, including the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Jazz Album and Downbeat Magazine's Critics Poll nominee for rising star tenor saxophonist and vocalist.

Another new wrinkle in this year’s festival is the inclusion of a number of vocal jazz artists, said Griggs, including Vanisha Gould, a New York based singer who will lead her quartet of piano, bass and drums at the Unitarian Society at 4:30 p.m. 

At the Unitarian Society at 1:30 p.m., meantime, South African singer Vuyo Sotashe, now living in New York, will be joined by Grammy-nominated American pianist/composer Chris Pattishall for “Songs of Protest and Peace,” which looks at music that came out of the civil rights movements in the U.S. and South Africa.

“We wanted to emphasize voices as a way of sharing that message” of diversity, equity and inclusion, Griggs noted.

There will be plenty of instrumental fireworks from performers, too, such as “killer guitarist” (as Griggs puts it) Mack Whitfield, who plays at The Parlor Room at 1 p.m. and 2:30 p.m. Whitfield, a graduate of Boston’s Berklee College of Music, has released 14 solo albums and played with a huge range of jazz and pop musicians on many other records.

If you want some outdoor entertainment, stop by Pulaski Park, which will host New York DJ Matthew “Fat Cat” Rivera spinning rare 78rpm jazz records; the UMass Jazz Ensemble; a swing dance lesson; and a performance by Danny Jonokuchi & The Revisionists, a New York swing band that Griggs says has won rave reviews in the last several years.

The festival’s only ticketed event is the Sept. 30 concert, at 7:30 p.m. at the Academy of Music, that commemorates the music of Max Roach. This “Centennial Celebration” features drummer Joe Farnsworth, who in an interview last month told the Gazette he grew up idolizing Roach, and saxophonist George Coleman, an NEA Jazz Master who was once a member of the famed Max Roach Quintet.

Rounding out the ensemble are Christian Sands (piano), Jeremy Pelt (trumpet) and Peter Washington (bass).

Tickets for the show range from $30 to $50, not including fees, and were still available at press time.

Griggs says revenues from the show will go toward some of the festival’s other programs, such as one that brings jazz musicians to the Northampton middle and high schools for workshops with students.

More details on the Northampton Jazz Festival can be found at northamptonjazzfest.org.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.

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