Last year, Juneau Jazz & Classics celebrated its 25th anniversary season with an expanded 16-day festival, adding more musicians and more venues to an already full docket. This year, their 26th, you might think they’d pull back and coast a bit, or at least return to pre-milestone normal.
But when it comes to music, “coast” is not a verb you could ever apply to artistic director Linda Rosenthal. Just as she sets high standards of excellence for her own performances, so she demands these standards for the festival she founded. Then as now, it is built on bringing a wide range of the best musicians she can find to perform for local audiences in uniquely Alaskan settings. And the energy that flows between those three elements are what make it special.
This year’s festival is again 16 days, and is packed with stars, concerts, workshops, dances and more. Last week organizers were still adding events.
“It might even be a little fuller than usual,” Rosenthal admitted.
It starts with a bang on Friday with a peformance by legendary musician Taj Mahal. Rosenthal said getting the famous blues musician on the roster was a “happy convergence” of many things, such as the fact that he was already planning to be in Alaska at that time on a tour -- and the fact that she knew what to tempt him with.
“We have the lure, so to speak, of this being the beginning of king salmon season,” she said.
Taj Mahal was here at least once before, years ago, when he played at the Crystal Saloon and Ballroom on Franklin Street, and those who saw him have never stopped talking about it.
“He is just adored by Juneau audiences,” Rosenthal said. “People who saw him 20 years ago, people who have seen him in various parts of the world. He means so much to so many people, and they have these great associations with his music.”
Rosenthal said that though she considers all of her festival artists “stars,” Taj Mahal’s name adds a certain luster to the whole festival, increasing people’s excitement about the event.
“I think the presence of one superstar heightens everybody’s awareness of who else is on the roster,” she said.
The Taj Mahal Trio’s Centennial Hall show is sold out, but there will be a wait list at the door beginning at 7 p.m.
After Friday, every day through May 19 offers multiple opportunities to hear live music in all kinds of settings.
On Sunday another Juneau favorite, the jazz and western swing group Hot Club of Cowtown, will perform. The group was invited in part because their name has appeared on many of the Jazz & Classics Festival’s comment cards over the years; the band gained a huge local following after their 2004 Alaska Folk Festival guest artist performance.
“They’re superstars in Juneau, too,” Rosenthal said. “I knew their time was going to come, and finally this was their year.”
Another band that has captured Juneau ears in the past is the “The President’s Own” Marine Band Jazz Combo, who played here a few years ago. They will be flying in from Washington, D.C. for the week, and are not easy to get, Rosenthal said.
“I like to think that the time they had here and the respect they received counted for something,” she said of their decision to make the trip.
Three new venues that debuted last year are back this year, including the Shrine of St Therese, the Lucky Lady and the Alaska Brewing Co’s Downtown Depot. Unexpected venues like the Lucky Lady and Depot can highlight the music and the musician-audience connections in new ways, Rosenthal said.
“The music just creates its own magic at these unusual venues,” she said. “The Lucky Lady was fantastic last year, the place was just packed and the interaction among the guest artists, the local jazz musicians, the audience .. and the customers who happened to be in the Lucky Lady at that time -- it was a wonderful mix.”
At the Alaskan Brewing Co. Downtown Depot, Rosenthal herself will perform with her husband, highly regarded violinist Paul Rosenthal, and cellist Jeffrey Solow, a longtime friend and colleague. The Rosenthals don’t get the chance to play together very often, Rosenthal said, adding that when they do, they jump at the opportunity. The tone of this concert, in keeping with the venue, will be casual.
“We’ll have a stack of music and see what we pull off the pile,” she said. “It will be very informal, very spontaneous.”
The Depot and Lucky Lady events are free, other concerts require tickets; see www.jazzandclassics.org for details.
In addition to all the concerts, there are workshops scheduled throughout the week, including several levels of cabaret workshops with Barney McClure, a swing guitar workshop with Whit Smith of Hot Club of Cowtown, a string workshop with Avalon String Quartet and a vocal jazz workshop with Dee Daniels, among others.
Dancers will also find plenty of opportunity for getting out on the floor, with three events in particular geared toward dance: the Taj Mahal performance, next Friday’s California Honeydrops performance, and the finale concert featuring Lavay Smith and Her Red Hot Skillet Lickers.
Making sure all of this works is a huge undertaking, but fitting the pieces of the puzzle together is one Rosenthal said she always enjoys.
“Each one has a slightly different character to it, I guess,” she said.
Once the festival has started she doesn’t try to find “down time,” she just goes with the high energy excitement until it’s over.
“The relaxation comes after the festival. Trying to make myself relax would make me unrelaxed,” she said with a laugh.
As for the rewards of all that juggling, they are too many to name.
“It comes at me in waves all the time,” she said. “Sitting in a concert and watching the audience respond to the artist and seeing that wonderful interaction coming from the stage to the audience. Or watching people leave with big smiles on their faces. Or bringing the artists in to Juneau and seeing that big grin on their faces when they step off the plane, or take their first step outside the airport... The reasons (why I do it) are coming at me all the time, every day.”
“There’s just nothing like making music for people who appreciate what you’re doing.”
For more information, visit www.jazzandclassics.org/