Syracuse Jazz Fest, the northeast’s largest free jazz festival, successfully returned in 2022 after a four-year hiatus. An expanded, five-day lineup this year brought more than 20,000 people to Clinton Square, Hanover Square, Syracuse University and smaller venues to see a lineup led by Herbie Hancock, Gladys Knight, Scott Bradlee’s Postmodern Jukebox, Tower of Power, Spyro Gyra and more.
But will Jazz Fest return in 2024?
Syracuse Jazz Fest founder and executive producer Frank Malfitano told syracuse.com | The Post-Standard he’s meeting with stakeholders this week to determine future plans for the festival. The group this year included New York State, Onondaga County, National Grid, Amazon, Price Chopper / Market 32, Syracuse University and Visit Syracuse.
Questions include how much funding would be available for next year, how much the five-day expansion worked, when a 2024 festival could be scheduled, and whether they’d want to do anything different next year. This year’s event included national acts on the main stage in Clinton Square, a new stage at Hanover Square, a Sunday gospel concert at SU, and more than 20 local venues with live performers — all with free admission.
“We had a pretty good festival,” Malfitano said. “All of the clubs were packed to capacity. We had two dozen clubs, bars, restaurants and hotels downtown operating with live music simultaneously so people could go around and club hop. And every place was packed and the music was great… I’m happy with that. I think a lot of people are happy with that.”
“I think we finally found a model that allows us to a more successfully integrate the talent that we have here (in Central New York),” he added.
The 2022 budget was $450,000, according to Malfitano, and $700,000 in 2023. A larger budget helped expand the festival to five days and include more stages, plus book bigger names like Hancock and Knight.
“The attendance was great. The feedback was great,” Malfitano said of this year’s Jazz Fest. “I had some Syracuse musicians call me and said they thought this was the best.”
Malfitano says he’s hoping to match this year’s budget or go bigger. Artist fees have increased sharply in recent years, and booking is happening earlier and earlier.
He doesn’t want Jazz Fest to be compared to other concert events, such as the JMA Wireless Dome, St. Joseph’s Health Amphitheater at Lakeview and the New York State Fair, but knows more money means marquee artists to draw crowds as well as support local musicians and crew. Jazz Fest also caters to music fans that might not connect with the traditional pop, country and rock artists at those venues, focusing instead on jazz with R&B, funk, soul and other genres.
“I think we’ve always had our own musical identity,” he said.
Syracuse Jazz Fest began in 1983 and was held at multiple sites throughout Central New York for 35 years. Two of the events were among the largest crowds in Syracuse concert history with estimated crowds of 40,000 for Aretha Franklin in 2007 and 35,000 for Ray Charles in 2000. But several major sponsorships expired after 2017, and the festival was dormant until the Covid shutdown of live events sparked newfound demand for concerts that opened the door to a return in 2022.
Malfitano is aware that some many complain about money being used for a music festival instead of tackling crime or social issues, such as homelessness, hunger and substandard housing. But Jazz Fest still holds importance as a unique event that celebrates an American art form and delivers free entertainment that the whole community can enjoy.
“Look, we’re looking at a really polarized, segregated, divided nation and that applies to our community as well,” he said. “I think a lot of times if you go to an event you’ll see all of the audience members look exactly alike… I think you look at Jazz Fest, you see the entire community. Everybody comes out, everybody comes together, and they come in large numbers.”
The event also brings money into Central New York with visitors from out of town. According to Malfitano, the 2023 Syracuse Jazz Fest brought people in from 22 different states and five countries, enjoying local restaurants, hotels, bars, architecture and a Syracuse tradition.
“I think it’s also important from a recruiting and retention standpoint. I mean, we need to expand our cultural menu. The Microns of the world that are coming to town, along with Amazon, you know, they need something for their employees who are locating here.”
Malfitano said Jazz Fest is always interested in more local sponsors and involvement from the community, plus feedback from attendees at [email protected]. He also hopes to set the festival up for long-term sustainability beyond a year-to-year basis.
“You want those traditions to continue because it makes you feel like you’re part of a community,” he said. “I’ve always loved Jazz Fest and it really pleases me when people tell us they love it and they’d like to see it continue.”