Rolling Hills of OCC Again Prove Welcoming for M&T Syracuse Jazz Fest

Jul 16, 2014

The hills were alive with the sound of music.

Sorry to swipe that golden oldie title off your Oscar shelf, Julie Andrews, but after spending Friday and Saturday nights on the campus of Onondaga Community College for the 32nd edition of the M&T Syracuse Jazz Fest, I can think of no better phrase to describe the fit between location and event here in Central New York.

After two years at the flatter lawn of Jamesville Beach Park, founder and executive director Frank Malfitano had his baby back at the campus where he also books the bands that come into Storer Auditorium for the during-school Legends of Jazz series.

Did you go?

Plenty of people did. I thought there may have been almost 10,000 folks at the peak of things Friday night, when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy was winding down and Trombone Shorty was gearing up to headline the first evening of two for the free-admission fest. It's hard to tell exactly how many, what with the changing elevations and winding hills and pathways and slopes that are too severe to hold a portable chair. But a lot of bodies look like a lot of bodies, and it sure did when I moved to the back of the lot to take a picture looking toward the stage near the end of the headliner's set.

On Saturday, when the headliner was 88-year-old bluesman B.B. King, there were a lot more people than the previous night. My stroll through the lawn told me so, as did the abundance of cars parked next to the roadways on the campus and on the public roads as my dear wife Karen and I left during the closing fireworks display.

 And even with its growth spurt, the OCC campus still has the space on the hills to handle the people. And the surrounding buildings provide some air conditioning from the summer heat, and modern restrooms, too, if you don't mind the lines.

The parking lots are fairly close to the seating area.

The food area is very close to the seating area. (The food trucks were too few and the lines for food were too long, but I'm certain that could be addressed in the future.)

The sound carries well up into the crowd.

The view is good down to the stage ... and further onward impressively to the city, during the daylight hours.

I know there are still people who insist that this jazz form belongs in the city.

I have a humble opinion for you, folks. The redesign of Clinton Square, while quite lovely for ice skating and tree lightings and music festivals of 5,000 or so people, would be overwhelmed by tens of thousands of people attempting to remain there, baking on the concrete, for three, four, five, six hours.

So far this year, I've had a grand time at Clinton Square at the Crawfish Festival and the Polish Festival. I'm not a complete naysayer for the space.

But for this event ... The last time the M&T Jazz Fest was held in Clinton Square was in 2000. With the legendary Ray Charles headlining, crowds were estimated as high as 40,000. The square was yet to be reconstructed, with the main stage up toward West Genesee Street. And yet, what I remember very clearly, was a sense of too many people jammed into too little space. In the back of my mind was the the worry of getting trampled.

This weekend, the New York State Blues Fest returns to Clinton Square, another free admission event, starting at 4 p.m. Friday and 1 p.m. Saturday, with national headliners Rod Piazza & the Mighty Flyers at 9:30 p.m. the first night and Mark Hummel & the Golden State-Lone Star Revue the same time the second night. Fine and entertaining bands, but not mainstream names.

The following weekend, Clinton Square is the site for the Northeast Jazz and Wine Festival, with a mix of Central New York and national performers on three stages. The headliner is Marcus Johnson at 10 p.m. July 26.

It would be wonderful for either or both to fill the downtown space, but overfilling would be a surprise at this point.

It seems that the new amphitheater bordering Onondaga Lake is a go. Perhaps that could be a fit for the M&T Syracuse Fest in the future? Of course, Malfitano now starts over again signing sponsors and convincing government officials to fund next year's event. It's good news whenever it's announced that the fest will be anywhere, really. If the 33rd event is at OCC, well, I'll say that will be really good news.

What has been your favorite location for the M&T Syracuse Jazz Fest? Where would you like to see it next year?  Will you go to Clinton Square for the New York State Blues Fest this weekend or the Northeast Jazz and Wine Festival next weekend?