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Hartford’s Bushnell Park Becomes Summer Capital of Free, Outdoor Jazz Concerts

Jun 29, 2016

The Hartford Jazz Society’s Monday night series in the park opens with a bang on July 11

Break out the cooler, corkscrew, suntan lotion, shades, lawn chair and picnic basket for the grand July opening of the free, lavish summer jazz festivities in Hartford’s Bushnell Park.

A popular, long-running urban ritual, the Hartford Jazz Society's free concert series draws tens of thousands to the scenic downtown park every summer from the first Monday after July 4 through the middle of August. The series has been recognized by the Library of Congress as “the oldest free, continuously run jazz festival in the nation.”

The Hartford Jazz Society’s Monday night series in the park opens with a bang on July 11, ignited by the explosive Afro-Cuban jazz of the Cuban-born saxophonist/percussionist/bandleader Yosvany Terry. In memory of the late Paul Brown, the legendary bassist/producer who founded the Monday night series in 1967 and produced it for many years, the HJS has renamed the acclaimed series Paul Brown Monday Night Jazz.

Not showing any signs of middle-age lethargy or gasping five-oh fever, the venerable series youthfully embraces everything from modern jazz to contemporary genres. Its energetic grasp includes a relatively new musical and cultural hybrid rooted in the heritage of the Garifuna people.

Its Monday night specials range from trumpeter/flugelhorn post-bop master Tom Harrell to the bold, genre-crossing bassist and Hartford native Doug Wimbish, whose bulging resume includes stints with Living Colour and Jungle Funk, and session work with rapper Mos Def and The Rolling Stones.

Other highlights include: saxophonist and Connecticut native Noah Preminger, a rising star of ever increasing luminosity, intensity and warmth; the imposing drummer E.J. Strickland; and, for something far off the beaten path, The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble. Mixing music and cultural advocacy, this band blends jazz with the Garifuna heritage, including distinctive rhythms, indigenous instruments and the endangered language of the Garifuna people.

Here’s the lineup, opening acts at 6:00 pm, headliners at 7:30 pm, with the opener listed first:

July 11: Damian Curtis Latin Jazz Ensemble and Yosvany Terry Quartet

July 18: Erica Bryan Ensemble and The Afri-Garifuna Jazz Ensemble

July 25: Mike Casey and E.J. Strickland Quintet

August 1: Josh Bruneau and Tom Harrell Quartet

August 8: Jeff Fuller and Noah Preminger Quartet

August 15: MX=Trio Data and Doug Wimbish

Concerts broadcast live by WWUH 91.3 FM. Rain venue: Hartford’s Asylum Hill Congregational Church. Information: hartfordmondaynightjazz.com

Trumpeter Tom Harrell
Credit Maurice Robertson

Celebrating its 25th season, The Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, a separate major event, kicks off not in the park, its central home base, but at Hartford’s Infinity Hall. As a warm-up for its free three-day bash in the park, the festival presents a special, highly intriguing ticketed show on Thursday, July 14 at 8:00 pm called The Daughters of Rhythm & Blues.

What makes this off-campus festival preview potentially fascinating is that it features the singer/songwriter daughters of two mega-superstar vocalists: Rhonda Ross, daughter of diva Diana Ross and Motown mogul Berry Gordy, and Carla Cooke, daughter of Sam Cooke. The talented daughters are on a national tour celebrating their family legacies as well as their own original styles and songs.

Information and tickets ($29-$44) at infinityhall.com and box office at 866-666-6306.

After the Infinity Hall show, the festival returns to its admission-free policy and its regular stomping grounds at Bushnell Park, steaming full speed ahead there for the weekend from Friday, July 15 through Sunday, July 17.

Bassist Doug Wimbish, a headliner at the Hartford Jazz Society's Monday Night Jazz series this summer
Credit Maurice Robertson

Opening night in the park steps off briskly with The Bronx Conexión, a hard-driving, 20-piece Latin jazz big band on Friday, July 15 at 7:00 pm. Led by percussionist Victor Rendon, the Bronx bombers groove in the exuberant tradition of such revered Latin masters as Tito Puente and Machito.

Rendon’s raiders are followed at 9:00 pm by the headline act matching contemporary singer/guitarist and Capetown native Jonathan Butler and the sultan of the soulful, satiny sax, Gerald Albright. With his Midas touch, the aptly named and luminously toned Albright can transform even pap mold into pop gold.

Variety abounds in the popular weekend festival, which last summer drew more than 70,000 fans to the park. That’s 15,000 above the festival’s seasonal average which, according to its website, makes it “the largest free jazz event in New England.”

An ecumenical celebration that seeks to be all things to all people, it presents such premier headliners this summer as the modern jazz drummer Carl Allen leading his quintet in an homage to the late, iconic drummer Elvin Jones.

Variety abounds in the popular weekend festival, which last summer drew more than 70,000 fans to the park.

Also sure to delight jazz purists, the festival’s grand finale showcases the formidable Hartford Legacy Jazz Orchestra, featuring saxophonist Rene McLean and trumpeter Raymond “Dr. Rackle” Williams as guest soloists. Its big league batting order bristles with an array of heavy hitters including saxophonists Wayne Escoffrey and Abraham Burton.

If mainstream jazz isn’t your cup of tea and you’re hungering for pop, funk, contemporary, Latin, hip-hop seasonings or soothing, dulcet dollops of smooth jazz, the festival might have exactly what you desire.

Its eclectic menu offers everything from Jus Us, an eight-piece funk, R&B and soul band with a touch of hip-hop, to the svelte sound of smooth jazz saxophonist/flutist Najee, whose soprano sax’s synthesis of silk and soul has yielded many happy gold and platinum returns.

Here’s the weekend schedule July 15-July 17 as announced by the GHFJ:

Friday, July 15

Gates open, 5:00 pm

Opening Ceremony, 6:30 pm

The Bronx Conexión, 7:00 pm

Jonathan Butler and Gerald Albright, 9:00 pm

Saturday, July 16

Phil French, 3:00 pm

Jeff Bradshaw, 5:00 pm

Marcus Anderson, 7:00 pm

Najee, 9:00 pm

Dance Troop, 11:00 pm

Jus Us, 11:10 pm

Sunday, July 17

Jazz mass off-site at Hartford’s Christ Church Cathedral, 10 am

Funky Dawgz Brass Band, 1:30 pm, walk-through New Orleans style

Marcus Young, 4:00 pm

Carl Allen & The Art of Elvin, 6:00 pm

Hartford Legacy Jazz Orchestra, 8:00 pm

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