By Walter Rutledge
The 28th Annual Staten Island Jazz Festival presented by the Universal Temple of the Arts (UTA) is becoming one of the city’s “don’t miss” events. The festival took place on Saturday, October 17th in the Music Hall at Snug Harbor. Over the years the festival has built a loyal Staten Island base, but this year it attracted an enthusiastic diverse Tri-State audience of both jazz aficionados and newcomers.
The day long festival began at 10:30 with classes, workshops and panel discussions for youth and adults. The activities ranged from collage construction for children by Diedra Harris Kelley (Co-Executive Director of the Romare Bearden Foundation), to a music vocal workshop conducted by vocalist Betty Shirley. The five-hour main event in the Music Hall began at 2pm and featured twenty acts showcasing jazz music and art forms influenced by the medium including dance, rap and spoken word.
What makes this grass-roots effort so newsworthy is the festival’s humble beginnings and staying power. The festival is the brainchild of UTA founder Sadja Musawwir Ladner. Her love and respect for this American art form prompted her to begin presenting autumnal jazz festivals at a local Staten Island High School. Now 28 years later the festival has grown in size and prominence, and it not only showcases jazz heavyweights, local performers and youth organizations, but assists in preserving the art form and educating the public about one of American’s cultural treasures.
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The festival also emphasizes that Jazz, the universal American art-form, is still in flux. Its origins include influences from the Italian Tarantella, and the Irish jig, but the main source is the rhythms of Americans of African decent. Born and reared in the bordellos and speakeasies of the Storyville District of New Orleans, Jazz migrated north with the mass exodus of former slaves escaping the oppressive post Reconstruction Era south.
The ever-changing and adaptable nature of the art form attributes to its resilience. Throughout its history Jazz has influenced and been influenced by popular culture and trends. This is evident in the many derivatives of jazz music including bee-bop, swing, big band, afro-cuban, and latin styles; and it’s influence on popular music such as R&B, gospel, pop, Rock n Roll, and pop music.
Jazz music has always had a cross-over appeal to audiences and musicians alike, and the Festival exemplifies that quality. Both the stage and the audience reflected the universal/global appeal of Jazz. Performers representing the global community included Wafoo (Japan) Leopoldo Flemming (Afro-Cuban) Emme Kemp (Café Society) Mr. Mambo (including a tap dancer and steel drummer) and Betty Shirley (traditional). Hip Hop artist Starter incorporated rap and a R&B, while Hamiet Bluiett introduced us to 11-year-old drumming phenom Tojo Roney.
The 28th Annual Staten Island Jazz Festival is one of the best examples of the inclusiveness of art and culture. The music is not exclusively the property of one group, it is now world music and belongs to anyone who can appreciate a syncopated downbeat. Congratulations to the Universal Temple of the Arts and Sajda Musawwir Ladner, who begin the planning for this event almost a year in advance. If you would like more information about upcoming events, Universal Temple of the Arts and the 29th Staten Island Jazz Festival (2016), or to volunteer or make a donation visit utasi.org.
Adewale Adekanbi Jr. Photographer