Soundbites: Looking Back at Jazz Fest | Music News + Views | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Soundbites: Looking Back at Jazz Fest


Published June 12, 2024 at 10:00 a.m.

Big Freedia at the Burlington Discover Jazz Fest - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Big Freedia at the Burlington Discover Jazz Fest

They tell me my city is dead.

I see it in online comments sections, strewn about the gutter of social media like wet rubbish. Sometimes I even hear it when I walk the streets: muttered derision and sneering talk that always boils down to some version of Burlington used to be cooler when I was younger.

They tell me my city sold out. That she's seen better days that will never come again and that all the Queen City is good for is overpriced tourist candy — weed and booze and sunset selfies. They ask me if I feel safe? Do I think the politicians fucked everything up? Is everyone on heroin now?

I've heard it before. I first encountered Burlington when I was around 7 years old, and no matter what some ninnies on Facebook say, it hasn't actually changed that much. When I moved back as an adult, in 2001, I was pleasantly surprised to find a city that still had the same heart.

But negativity can build like rust on the bottom of a car after a few Vermont winters, and as I strode downtown last Friday night to take in the 41st Burlington Discover Jazz Festival, I was feeling dogged by the haters. I'd written thousands of words about the divided opinions on the city's marquee music fest; I'd dry-cleaned a blazer and worn my freshest T-shirt on TV to talk about it; I'd answered questions from radio DJs and family friends and coworkers. I'd been blabbing about jazz and what it meant for the soul of Burlington for days, and as I ambled past the statue of general William W. Wells at Battery Park, on the site where cannons defended the city during the War of 1812, I was flagging.

After all, I'd traversed the Church Street Marketplace earlier that day to catch what used to be the meat of the jazz fest sandwich: local acts performing all over downtown. I'd caught my old friend Ryan Osswald playing some sweet-sounding jazz guitar from the Red Square outdoor stage on Thorsen Way. I'd listened to a high school band's set and taken in some truly lovely tones emanating from the Burlington City Arts tent in City Hall Park.

But there was no hiding how different the vibe was from years past, when Church Street was jam-packed with jazz questers combing every coffee shop, record store and restaurant in sight for the strains of saxophones and scatting. For all the rancor and, frankly, sometimes silly takes from the jazz scene's old guard who questioned the force of nature that is guest curator Adi Oasis and raged at the Flynn and executive director Jay Wahl in the weeks leading up to the fest, it was impossible to ignore their more salient points. Namely, that the artistic and structural cohesion and, more importantly, the sense of deeply connected community that once defined the jazz fest is a ghost of its former self.

So once I reached the Waterfront Park stage on Friday night, I was feeling pretty down. Maybe my city was dying. Maybe everything sucked now and the old memories were dead and the new ones would suck, too. The halcyon days were done, and I was just making the best of what was still around. Oh, bother.

Then Oasis took the stage. I don't know if I imagined it or not, but there was a mischievous, defiant glint in her eyes as she strapped on her bass and proceeded to lead her band through a set of pulsating soul and funk music. As if she knew all the shit that had been talked, all the proclamations of doom that had been issued, the guest curator took the festival into her own hands and demanded it to dance.

And dance it did. The waterfront crowd found all the energy missing on Church Street and then some, transforming into a vibrant, undulating mass of joy and head-bobbing bass lines. There were no more questions of authenticity or concerns about what is or isn't jazz, because the woman onstage wasn't asking — she was showing us. Oasis had worked for months with Flynn programming director Matt Rogers to book one hell of a party for the city, and this was her thesis.

Yet she still had the ultimate ace up her sleeve: Big Freedia.

New Orleans' Queen of Bounce walked onstage and absolutely lit up the crowd with the most raucous, filthy, booty-shaking set the jazz fest has ever experienced. It was so raw and powerful, I reflexively clutched my white-boy pearls as I looked to a group of gray-haired locals standing nearby, who clearly had ventured down to Waterfront Park to catch some jazz. I watched the older crew with growing concern as Freedia's backup dancers mimed oral sex with uncanny gusto.

But I needn't have worried. After flashing each other the oh, my face, the older crew was soon moving with the rest, helpless before Freedia's onslaught of bounce and irrepressible energy.

When Freedia announced from stage that she would be curating the jazz fest in 2025, the crowd roared. Reached for comment, Rogers later said the Flynn had not yet chosen next year's curator. But there was no debate among the thousands dancing at the waterfront: Oasis and the Flynn had thrown a hell of a party.

Almost delirious from hours of dancing and with a grin plastered on my exhausted face, I walked back toward downtown. Things had picked up, and there was a jazz fest feel to the streets at last. But it didn't stop me from hoping the Flynn can figure it out next year and reengage with the local jazz community. This is far too small a scene to have pointless barriers between people who are all just trying to bring music to the city. There's plenty of room, even in a five-day festival cycle, to showcase Burlington's incredible jazz musicians and still have blowout dance parties by the lake.

But beyond all that, I was suffused with pride and an almost indignant type of brashness. My city is vibrant. My city lives. She's not perfect — she's still too damn expensive, and she's got plenty of problems — but if anyone thought Burlington couldn't throw a party anymore, Oasis and her friends have put that silly notion to bed.

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