Founder Frank Malfitano laughs at a joke from the stage. Photo by Mike Greenlar | Central Current

The Syracuse Jazz Festival has resumed after experiencing a hiatus predating the pandemic.

The 37th annual festival, now extended to a five-day fest – each day with different performers at locations throughout downtown Syracuse – allows guests from out of town and residents to experience jazz music and expand commerce by supporting local businesses.

After nearly five years, spectators gathered at Hanover Square, some with their lawn chairs affixed in any vacant areas they could find and others creating makeshift seats on sidewalk curbs. Headliners Herbie Hancock and Gladys Knight will take the Amazon stage at Clinton Square on Friday and Saturday nights, respectively.

Since 1981, Syracuse Jazz Fest has offered free live entertainment with global jazz  icons including Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, Harri Stojka Acoustic Drive, and local jazz bands, the Zydeco Cha Cha’s and Salt City Jazz Collective.

Read more: See the line-up announcement

“We know that this music is a healing force for the planet and humanity, and the brain,” Syracuse Jazz Fest Executive Producer and Founder Frank Malfitano said. 

In tandem with the musicians, Malfitano did not miss a beat, shaking hands and embracing audience members, thanking them for supporting and coming out to see the show on Thursday. 

“I love what it does for the community. I think it’s doing good things, the evidence of that is here tonight. The entire community is out,” Malfitano said. “What I love about Jazz Fest is that it’s inclusive. This is for everybody and everybody in town is here.”

In between musician sets, Malfitano kept the show running, making introductions, highlighting the musicians, and recognizing guests from other cities including Baltimore, Detroit, and Montreal.

“Frank you brought this back to life,” Visit Syracuse President Danny Liedka said.  “As long as we support Frank, this goes on.”

A continued advocate and devotee of the music genre, Malfitano shared his personal connection and history with jazz in a Q&A with Central Current reporter Yolanda Stewart in Hanover Square.

A former instrumentalist himself, Malfitano discussed his journey to coordinating the festival.

“I knew I was always going to be connected to the music, I didn’t know how. I just followed the music and it took me, eventually, to what I’m doing,” Malfitano said.

The Q&A is lightly edited for length and clarity.

Stewart: How did the idea of Syracuse Jazz Festival first come about?

Malfitano: Well, I used to go to jazz festivals in Detroit, Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festival. I used to go to the Newport Jazz Festival … I got tired of going out of town for my music festivals. And, I said, ‘you know, there’s a stage, there’s musicians, there’s a sound system. How hard can it be?’

I knew that I wanted to bring what I had seen in the rest of the country and Canada, back to my hometown. And, so I just did it. 

I got together with a group of local musicians, the local jazz musicians and I said, ‘I want to do a jazz festival,’ and they said, ‘Okay, man, we’re in.’ They knew that I was sincere about the music.  They knew that I respected them and that they believed in me enough that I would do the right thing by the community and the music that they signed on. They’ve been friends ever since.

Stewart: With a festival of this magnitude, how do you organize this? Are you the only one doing it or do you have a team?

Malfitano: You’re looking at the team.

The team is growing, we’re building a nice team. National Grid came on board.

Visit Syracuse came on board this year and Danny Liedka is the county’s director of tourism, so he understands the value of this. National Grid understands the value of building the intellectual, spiritual capacity of the community. Syracuse University came on board. 

When you start getting players like that on the team, now, you got help. We have a food and beverage director, we have a production director, we have an operation director, we have a back line coordinator, So, we have a veteran production team that comes into action, as we get closer to the festival. 

I do the fundraising and I book the bands. I got about 40 titles and 30 hats that I wear, but I don’t mind.

Stewart: I know that you have a personal connection to jazz and Syracuse, of course, but what does Syracuse Jazz Fest mean to you?

Malfitano: I love this music. I love African American music, I love American music. This is the canon of our literature, this is what we’ve given to the world. We created it here. And, I’m so honored to serve it and the creators of the music. I mean, that in and of itself is enough for a lifetime to be able to give something back to my hometown and to the community is really important to me.

  It’s a lot of work. But, when I see people enjoying themselves and people getting together, and when I see the entire community come together, I feel like there’s some hope. We’ve been going through some divided time. I was around for the 1960s, I marched with Dr. Martin Luther King when I was 17 years old, and I met Aretha Franklin, we became lifelong friends. I met Mahalia Jackson. I understood the contribution of the music to the movement and jazz is really about freedom. 

I work really hard to get everything underwritten, so we don’t have an admission fee because I don’t think the people who created the music should be denied access to it. My job is to get the people, to the music and the music, to the people. 

We need to broaden the scope of entertainment and what we’re offering. So I’m just trying to do my part. 

Stewart: Can you tell us details about the reason behind the five-year hiatus?

Malfitano: We ran into some political headwinds and COVID, and we didn’t have the funding.

If I don’t succeed, the community suffers and I don’t want to give myself more credit than I do, But, if I give up then all of the people who count on this event, all the musicians – all the Syracuse musicians, national, international musicians who come in – all the people in the community that can’t afford the ticket prices that are out there today … I’m going to let them down. 

Stewart: How do you keep Jazz Fest going given all of these prior parameters?

Malfitano: You don’t quit. What I learned is that nobody gives you power. Thank God, I’ve got the strength. I’ve got the support of the community and now the support of the corporate community, the university community, the business community. Apparently, whether they like me or not, they like what I’m doing and they see the value in what I’m doing.  I do it by not quitting. I do it because of my passion for music and for humanity. 

Rather than battling the powers that be, it’s better to try to educate and lead them in a direction in order to do that you need to find the intersection of where it makes sense for them. 

I fight for people who can’t. A lot of people can’t afford $150, $200, $300 tickets. A lot of people in this town are working people. And, I think in some small way, we’re contributing in a very important way to bringing people together.

Stewart: Since we are on the topic of division, we all know that music brings people together. How do you get renowned musicians such as Herbie Hancock, Gladys Knight, Ray Charles, etc., to perform at Jazz Fest?

Malfitano: They’re friends of mine. I had the good fortune to work in New York City and I worked in Detroit for seven years, and I worked in Washington, D.C. Those are big jazz towns and I did project work in Los Angeles, Chicago and New Orleans. So I met all of the players from those communities and we became friends. Just like I asked the local musicians back in the day when I started out, ‘would you help me?’ I did the same thing I called Miss Franklin.

It’s just meeting them in the industry, meeting them at jazz conferences, international jazz conferences in Canada and In New York. Being a part of the same community. The community is actually rather small and I’ve been doing it for 40 years. All the major booking agencies that represent these folks know that I’ve got a respectful audience, that I run a good festival, we run a good festival as a city. Artists love to come here and play for our folks. We give them the red carpet treatment and treat them like the creators that they are. 

Stewart: Has Jazz Fest ever experienced any backlash from people who may not be listeners or fans of the genre?

Malfitano: No, the people who want to come, come, and there are a lot of people who are interested because it’s the biggest, oldest, and longest running music festival in town. Not everybody loves classic rock or hip hop or country. I think when you come to Jazz Fest, you’re going to hear soul and rhythm, blues and funk, gospel, and jazz. Jazz is at the core of everything we do, but it’s all connected. People get a diversified music experience. 

Stewart: How do you pay the performers?

Malfitano: We raise corporate sponsorship. We get state grant money and we get county grant money. We also get corporate sponsorship support and underwriting from companies around town. 

Stewart: What has been your best experience within all these years of running jazz fest?
Malfitano: I think it’s more than one thing. Take tomorrow, for example or Saturday. When I look up at that stage, Gladys Knight is in my hometown singing to my friends, family, neighbors, and brothers and sisters for free. I look up at the sky, Thank God, and I say, ‘this is not happening anywhere else on planet earth tonight, but right here.’ It’s got to feel special to people, we got to know that, but I’m constantly reminded of that.

That makes people feel proud of where they live, work and play, and they get along better, gives them something to look forward to, gives some hope. 

I think we need more things like this and more things at this level.

Stewart: How would you say this year’s Jazz Fest differs from previous years?

Malfitano: A lot of people come up to me and say, “Frank, this is the best line-up ever.”

Stewart: What are you most excited about for this year’s Jazz Fest?

Malfitano I’m excited about everything. I love the fact that we’ve got great weather. I love the fact that we’ve got a five-day festival, that we expanded it.  I love the fact that we’re ending it with gospel on campus at Syracuse University in Hendricks Chapel. I love the fact that Gladys and Herbie are coming in.  They’re both mega icons, superstars. I mean it’s gracious of them to do this. I mean they’re really doing us a favor and I feel so blessed by that. 

I love the club thing. Last night, we had 26 clubs – bars, restaurants, hotels and music clubs around towns – hosting jazz bands last night and people were walking around all over town. 

We invested money into that, we paid for bands, we worked with the venue operators. It’s a great partnership.

This year’s Syracuse Jazz Festival runs until Sunday, June 25. Guests are encouraged to attend for free. To find out schedule details for performance line-ups and locations, click here


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