Pat Methany image Wikimedia Commons
Arts & Culture Events Featured Music

The Rochester International Jazz Festival Turns Twenty With A Bang this Year

by Carl Mrozek

With Memorial Day in the rear view mirror  it’s again time for ‘Jazz in June’  in our sister city to the east, Rochester, where a world class jazz festival has been hosted for 20 years featuring some of the biggest names in jazz from across the globe.

“It’s been an amazing run and only gets better from here! This year we received well over 1000 submissions from artists around the globe and we’re humbled that so many groups wish to perform for our fabulous audience in Western NY. From iconic legends to emerging  stars we’ll celebrate some of the finest improvised music from around the globe. We’re looking forward to seeing you all again on Jazz St, soon!” said festival co-founder/producer /artistic director, John Nugent.

This year’s  festival  features over 1750 musicians performing in over 300 shows, on 19 stages in downtown Rochester NY  and hopes to top last year’s record attendance of over 210,000, between June 23 and July 1. Topping the ticket are 9 headliner shows, 4 of them ticketed and 5 of them free to the general public  on large outdoor stages.

The 2023 festival starts with starpower  Friday, June 23 in Kodak Hall at the Eastman Theater, featuring internationally acclaimed guitarist, composer, bandleader Pat Metheny with his Sideye Trio with rising stars Chris Fishman on piano/ keyboards and Joe Dyson on drums performing  Metheny’s greatest hits plus new compositions from his latest album, Sideye.

Keb' Mo' (@kebmomusic) / Twitter
Keb Mo’s Twitter photo

Saturday, June 24 the EastmanTheater hosts, Keb Mo, straight out of Compton (CA), one of the most accomplished blues guitarist-songwriter- performers that you likely never heard of. But at 70 Keb still strums and belts out blues classics and originals as powerfully as the legends he played in the movies like Robert Johnston and Howlin Wolf and in  Martin Scorcese’s “The Blues”. Also Saturday night, a free headliner St. Paul & the Broken Bones, an 8 piece band from Alabama, perform at 9 on the on the Chestnut Street Stage, Their new album, Alien Coast,, is described as “a fever dream in sonic form”. Their opening act, El Dorado Slim performs a repertoire described as “where NY’s Filmore East meets Detroit’s Club Mozambique”.powered by Little Feat guitarist, Scott Sherrard .

File:Bonnie Raitt at John Edwards presidential campaign.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Bonnie Raitt photo Wikimedia Commons

Tuesday evening, venerable blues diva Bonnie Raitt headlines at the Eastman Theater, but if you want to see her you’ll have to buy your ticket from a scalper as her show sold out quickly.

From June 28 through July1 all of the headliners are free to the general public at the Wegman’s Stage on Parcel 5, starting with Bruce Hornsby and the Noisemakers. Pianist- composer Hornsby has collaborated on albums with a long list of musical royalty from Dylan to Mavis Staples, Sting and Bonnie Rait and toured Europe and America with the Grateful Dead during the early 90s.  The following night(6/29)   Southside Johnny and the Asbury Dukes bring their raucous, roots-tinged rock and bluesy reverie to the Wegman’s Stage.

Friday evening (6/30) the Artimus Pyle Band celebrates Lynard Skynard on the Wegman’s Stage on Parcel 5. The following night,   July 1,  festival  favorite, Trombone Shorty brings his sassy brassy band from New Orleans to close the festival on an high note,

But, don’t judge an artist’s stature by the size of his/her stage, as some of the most accomplished jazz musicians in North America, Europe and beyond can also be seen and heard in Kilbourn Hall, part of the Eastman School of Music and at the other  10 ticketed venues  which include recital halls, clubs, churches and theaters which comprise the Club Pass component of the festival. There you can see and hear  some of the finest  established  jazz artists to  tomorrow’s legends. All 11 venues in the club pass circuit are less than a 10 minute walk from Gibbs/Jazz St., the beating heart of the festival.  Hence,  you only need to park once and are then  free to perambulate the vibrant musical core of downtown Rochester  and sample the unique  feast of musical talent on the menu nightly.

RIJF s motto is:  “It’s not just who you know but who you don’t know, but should know. “  As always there  is a long list of those artists and ensembles at this year’s festival. A short list includes:  Helen Sung Quartet, Okan (afro-cuban),vocalist Gabrielle Cavassa,pianist Deanna Witkowski, Bassel & The Supernaturals,  Chris Minh Doky All Stars, vocalist Samara Joy, saxophonist-singer-composer Camille Thurman with the Darrell Green Quartet, Big Lazy (roots music), eclectic composer , virtuoso pianist, Joey Alexander Vicki Kristina Barcelona, Bill Frisell Trio, South African Nduduzo Makhathini, Kenny Warner & Gregoire Maret celebrating Toots Thielman, Durham County Poets of Quebec, Erez Aviram Ensemble, Albino Mbie….. and that’s merely a slice of what’s on offer  at this year’s festival, mostly on the first weekend.

The best way to fully partake of the brilliant buffet in the club venues is with a 9 day or 3 day club pass which provides unlimited access to any of the 11 club venues for 3 or 9 days  New this year is a 3 day student pass  for 1/3 less than the standard 3 day club pass.  Club passes and headliner tickets can be obtained via the festival website and the full schedule plus  artist bios, maps and tips to help you plan your musical experience  at:  Rochester International Jazz Festival | June 23 – July 1, 2023 (  Much of this info is now  also available via the free festival app, downloadable from theiwebsite.

One of my favorite things at RIJF  is the nightly jam session  at the Hyatt  Regency on Main St., where most of the visiting musicians are quartered and areinvited to join the jam before retiring for the night. Some of the most memorable performances of past festivals have happened at these  sessions when two or more superstars blended  their distinctive styles in the ultimate jazz tradition,  the open jam session. The nightly jam, hosted by Mike Cottone and Bob Sneider,  starts at  nine and typically goes well past midnight . The net result is that for nine consecutive nights Rochester hosts the best jazz club north of NYC, which is open to all for the price of a drink or two.

Whether  you’re a serious aficionado  of jazz and its many  flavors  or have a broad musical palate that includes jazz, blues soul and roots music, you can’t go wrong by heading east to Rochester as often as you can between June 23 and July 1 to indulge in this world class global musical feast barely an hour’s drive from the Buffalo airport.