From the Desk of Artistic Director Steve MacQueen

Jun 1st, 2021

Usually, it’s difficult to pick out one favorite thing about the Burlington Discover Jazz Festival. But this year, it’s easy: it’s happening. Let there be music on the streets of Burlington!

For many (like me), Discover Jazz holds an outsized metaphorical importance. More than a series of events, it’s a celebration of summer, of music, of togetherness, of place, of joy.  

This year’s fest looks a little different, but the celebratory vibe remains eternal. We’re focused on our insanely vibrant local music scene, yet another cause for celebration. What other community this size has this depth and diversity of great music? None that I know. This year’s fest has a number of different “stages” working, so here’s a highlight for each of them.


What better way to begin a jazz festival than to line up 80+ saxophones and have them play a few tunes? This glorious community celebration brings together pros and amateurs alike to the Waterfront on Friday, June 4 to offer three tunes under the helm of saxman Dave Grippo. I’m willing to bet you haven’t heard anything like it before.


The fest’s main stage this year will host more than two dozen incredible performers over 10 days. Picking just one is tough, but if you’ve lived in the area and haven’t yet checked out Sabouyouma (June 13), then you need to see this band. They mine some monster grooves, led by the virtuosic balafonist Ousmane Camera and dynamic Senegalese percussionist Assane Coly.


We are so grateful to the dozen high school bands that were able to overcome the year’s multiple disasters and continue the grand tradition of school bands on Church Street. You can stop by and support these fabulous young musicians Monday-Wednesday, starting at 11 am each day.


This new series, curated by St. Mike’s musicology professor Bill Ellis, takes two musicians from different traditions, sets them in a shady, leafy spot in City Hall Park . . . and sees what happens. There are five in all—June 5, 6, 7, 8 and 10, all at 12:30 pm—and all are recommended, but if I had to pick just one, I might go with jazz saxophonist/composer extraordinaire Brian McCarthy jamming with rapper Edwin Owusu (June 7).


This past summer, the Flynn put on some shows with a decidedly old-fashioned twist: rent a flatbed, find a park, put some musicians on the truck, and let it roll. Given that there was almost no live music in Burlington at the time, the reception from both musicians and audiences (and Flynn staffers) was rapturous. So why not do it again? We’ll be hosting Hurly Burly truck shows with Dwight & Nicole (Roosevelt Park, June 5), Kat Wright (Starr Farm Park, June 6) and a final-day HB featuring saxophonist/composer/improviser Matthew Evan Taylor. He’ll be joined by JACK Quartet on June 13, which will present the world premier (!) of a new string quartet by jazz giant Wadada Leo Smith (!!). A world premiere by Wadada on a truck in a park in Burlington? Hell yes!


Perhaps the signature event of this year’s festival is the Saturday, June 12 Main Street Block Party with Ray Vega’s Latin Jazz Sextet and Barika. We’ll be closing down Main, so there will literally be dancing in the streets. Barika brings a four-piece horn section and a gaggle of guest stars, while Vega’s band brings that insistent Latin beat and his own soaring trumpet.


Who doesn’t love a summer movie in the park? But how often do you get to see a silent 1927 German expressionist film (Berlin: Symphony of a City) set to a largely improvised score and played by a staggering lineup of all-star Vermont musicians? Probably about as often as you’ve heard a choir of 80 saxophones, right? Pianist/composer Randal Pierce helms The Astral Projector Orchestra (June 10), which features Matthew Evan Taylor (saxophone), Connor Young (trumpet), Matt LaRocca (violin), Colin Henkel (drums), Polly Vanderputten (cello), Michael Chorney (guitar) and Rob Morse (bass). Pass the popcorn and pray for clear skies.


Most of the festival is free, but if you’ve got a few bucks you will definitely want to check out the amazing shows at Nectar’s: the organ-driven groove of Delvon Lamarr (June 4), the bluesy depths of Nick Cassarino (June 5), and the Django-conjuring guitar of Stephane Wrembel (June 10, at Halvorson’s actually). But for me, it’s about Marc Ribot (June 6), my favorite guitarist on earth. He can play anything and he’s played with everybody (his solo on Tom Waits’ Down in the Hole is an all-timer), but he’s bringing his scorched-earth trio Ceramic Dog, described by NY Magazine as “funk backbeats with the taut chaos on Sonic Youth and flashes of Woodstock Santana.” It’s ferociously political music, full of fire and fury, and I’ll admit up front, it’s probably not for everyone. But if you’re tough enough, it’s sure to be a festival highlight.


It’s no overstatement to call Chick Corea the most influential pianist of his generation. An absolute giant as a pianist and composer—is there any musician with comparable range, like, ever?—his passing this year was a blow. For this BDJF-only virtual event (June 7), four great jazz pianists—Marcus Roberts, Helen Sung, Aaron Diehl and Danilo Perez—share their thoughts and stories about this giant.

I know, it’s a lot, but it always is, and that’s one of the things I love most about the festival.

See you on the street! Or maybe in the park. Or maybe at Nectar’s. Anyway, I’ll see you.


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