New traditions

Jazz Fest is revamped and rebranded

Image is everything—even when it comes to sound. Sacramento Jazz Jubilee executive director Gene Berthelsen knows this; that’s why he and the rest of the annual music event’s organizers overhauled the celebration of all things jazz, refashioning it into a sleeker, more modern version of its predecessors.

The first and most obvious change is its new name: Out with the Jazz Jubilee, now it’s the Sacramento Jazz Festival.

It may seem like a small tweak for the 36th annual music event (the festival is actually still using the new name interchangeably with “Jubilee”), but it’s huge when it comes to public perception.

“We’ve broadened our musical offerings in the last few years, so we decided that maybe it was time to rebrand,” he says of the festival, which kicks off tonight and runs through the Monday in Old Sacramento and various downtown locations. “There’s a negative connotation with the word jubilee—it just has a really old-fashioned feel.”

The last thing festival organizers needed were accusations of being square, old-fashioned or, worse, completely irrelevant—especially after last year’s triple-whammy downer led to a notable drop in attendance.

The 2008 festival drew 65,000 attendees—a considerable dip from years past—thanks in part to high gas prices, a shaky economy and bad weather.

“We had a really difficult time last year, so now we’ve scaled back,” Berthelsen says.

Event organizers aren’t necessarily aiming higher this year—the attendance goal is 65,000. Instead, they’ve scaled back the number of acts and broadened the focus.

The festival’s original namesake, Dixieland jazz, is still big. But the New Orleans-derived style, known for its big brass sound and ragtime rhythms, actually only accounts for roughly 40 percent of this year’s program. Overall, there are more than 80 acts performing everything from contemporary “mainstream” jazz and swing to zydeco, blues, gospel and jazz-rock.

The expanded lineup has, despite public perception to the contrary, actually been evolving for the better part of two decades.

“We added zydeco to the festival back in the ’80s,” Berthelsen says. “We’ve been adding new, more diverse bands ever since.”

It’s tricky, Berthelsen says, trying to accommodate ever-changing tastes and evolving sounds, but festival organizers are eager to step up.

“I wouldn’t call it a challenge so much as an opportunity—we know people in Sacramento are looking for variety, they’re looking for more music that’s contemporary.”

All events are within walking distance or accessible by shuttle; in recent years, festival organizers scrapped Cal Expo events in favor of creating a more walkable event. But with 30 percent of the festival’s attendees traveling more than 500 miles to hear their favorite jazz, that omission proved a hardship for the hundreds who bussed into town in RVs and camped out at the Cal Expo parking lot.

And so, in a tip of the fedora to those road warriors, festival organizers have secured camping spaces at the West Sacramento KOA location.

“We’ve lined up 100 spaces—that’s a very valuable ticket.”

Now, Berthelsen offers some sage advice for those who are perhaps feeling a bit overwhelmed by the selections:

“Go down to Old Sacramento and walk around the streets until you hear something that you like. There are a lot of different things going on; it’ll be that easy.”