If you didn’t know that this was the first year San Jose Jazz Summer Fest’s Jazz Beyond stages were located in SoFA (South of First Area), downtown San Jose’s fast-growing artistic hub, you could have easily assumed it was always there. The turnout was mammoth. The Jazz Beyond crowds packed whimsical South First Street, sold out tickets, and packed bars and outside patios all four days. Jazz Beyond was curated by Universal Grammar (a project of Tommy Aguilar). Two new stages premiered: an outdoor stage at the end of South First Street and an inside stage in one of SoFA’s newest additions, The Continental Bar Lounge and Patio. Horns and piano screeched and barreled out of SoFA’s venues, club kids screamed over DJ sets, and eruptions of applause burst out from every SoFA crevice.
San Jose Jazz and Universal Grammar have been hard at work for half a decade cultivating the Jazz Beyond brand into an influential one that supports emerging artists and the emerging voices of today’s music that may not have a platform for recognition otherwise. “The Internet and Ali Shaheed Muhammad showcase that spectrum,” Tommy Aguilar explains. “The soul and the spirit is complete with the funk, soul, and jazz and live hip hop iterations of Will Sessions. The new powerful voice in jazz being delivered by the saxophone playing of Kamasi Washington. The future, that is in the music of SPZRKT and BOSCO.” Aguilar’s goal is for the music conversation to be continued through Jazz Beyond and for different movements to be embraced within the realm of jazz: Detroit funk, Atlanta R&B, Brooklyn hip hop, new Los Angeles cool, and the new jazz vanguard of the United Stages.
Whichever spot people dipped or snaked or pressed their way into—the loungey, trendy Continental, the majestic California Theatre, or the outdoor stage beautifully flanked by SoFA’s charming cityscape—it was difficult not to be struck with how vital Jazz Beyond is to San Jose Jazz Summer Fest and how its place is as needed as any international headliner.
The Continental Bar and Lounge, with its red-hued, intimate ambiance, ushered in Summer Fest on Thursday evening with two up-and-coming, future neo-soul, soundscape artists: BOSCO from New York City and SPZRKT from Atlanta, both of whose experimentation with experimental sound layering, poetic lyrics, synthesized production, and non-adherence to any music genres have brought them nods and acclaim from the music industry and a loyal following. “Wow, people were singing along,” Tommy Aguilar said ecstatically, and with some shock, after the two sets.
Both artists’ melding of hip hop, soulful R&B, and spacey, mind-bending, trance-like rhythms brought the beautiful, and the very unexpected–but most of all, produced beats and lyrics that make people think. This is not background music; these are two young people with gritty, inspirational journeys, whose music makes listeners stop, smile, and reflect. A few songs into his set, SPZRKT told the mesmerized audience, “Eight months ago I was working at a fast food place. Never give up on your dreams.”
Each artists’ fearless performances, thought-provoking lyrics, and atmospheric, risk-taking use of layered music styles and diversity of sounds, made them as enigmatic on stage as they are trance-like when listened to through earbuds. SPZRKT morphed from R&B smoothness to scaling operatic heights. His music incorporates drums and recordings from nature and modern day life. BOSCO, as much a visual artist as she is an audio maestro, came on stage with a feverish energy, bronze and red curls bouncing on her shoulders. She was like a modern day Josephine Baker, with a massive grin from ear to ear, full of positive energy and child-like gusto, and long, honey-colored limbs constantly moving with gymnastic flexibility and quickness. Her long legs would lock at the knee, her arms spread wide like a jumping jack, and then she would smoothly bounce into a sexy R&B dance move, warmly coaxing the audience to sing along with her silky, breathy voice.
Her journey to full-time musician is a large part of her music writing and approach to life. “There is something to be said when you completely alienate yourself from what is comfortable,” she explains. “I had to create the struggle for myself. If there’s no front door, take the back door, find a side door or find a window. People can connect with me because they know my lineage.” Her welcoming, genuine connection to her audience was further shown as she pulled people from the audience to be her backup dancers and jumped into the crowd to sing alongside them for a few moments. Both SPZRKT and BOSCO mingled and spoke to fans after their sets.
Friday brought Will Sessions and headliner The Internet, coincidentally on the same evening as South First Friday—SoFA’s monthly art street fair. “The Will Sessions sound got me immediately bopping my head and wanting to dance and had my heart pumping. The kids break dancing and the range of age and races left me with such a feeling of community. I was filled with warmth watching and dancing to this amazing band I had never heard before,” said Amanda Rawson. The Internet’s lead singer Syd the Kid’s velvety voice and the band’s addictive tracks, such as “Dontcha,” left the audience hollering and clapping. “Seeing the thousands of diverse onlookers as The Internet was about to hit will be something I will never forget,” Tommy Aguilar remembered. “It is something in the moment we must embrace as a message that something right is brewing.” Universal Grammar not only curated the Jazz Beyond artists this year, but also tucked in acclaimed DJs between performances. There was no rest this Summer Fest—it was adrenaline, sweat, and brain stimulation from start to finish. A massive, “hyphy” dance block-party ensued after The Internet concluded. This was just Friday.
If you were one of the lucky few to be able to wedge into Al Shaheed Muhammad’s DJ set at The Continental on Saturday night, you were the guest of an amazing dance party. Al Shaheed Muhammad is known around the world as one-third of A Tribe Called Quest, a legendary American hip hop group whose infusion of jazz into their rhymes made them hip hop innovators and vanguard musicians, while carrying them into mainstream music charts. As always, The Continental’s wall-windows were thrown open, and lines down the block hinted to passing Fest-goers of the intensity of the DJ set inside. The event was reminiscent of an exclusive DJ boiler set one would see in New York, Los Angeles, or Tokyo. “Ali’s performance was an inspiring ode to our future music and past,” Tommy Aguilar explained. “Hip hop music is still not overall accepted or embraced as an art form. Therefore Jazz Beyond exists to blow away those notions. This needs to happen so that a healthy brand or movement for Jazz Beyond exists, in order for a larger platform of acceptance on new ideas and innovations in black music are present.”
On Sunday, local jazz band The Illiance flawlessly covered pop hits and melded traditional jazz instruments with synthesized singing. Next door, every velvet seat in the opulent California Theatre was being filled for the much-anticipated saxophonist Kamasi Washington and his project, the West Coast Get Down, which was the Jazz Beyond reiteration of The Next Step. Members revealed a funky mix of their original material, stretching the boundaries of jazz. Each showcased an eyebrow-raising musicianship, drawing gasps and jolts of applause. Such mastership can only be achieved by fine-tuning a craft for a number of years. “It was indescribable finally witnessing the band’s sheer power,” Jackie Gage, local jazz singer and San Jose Jazz Marketing Associate, gushed. Gage continued:
The group’s concert at the California Theatre was dream-like. The standout soloist for me? Miles Mosley, hands down. An upright bassist whose pedal board made the wooden beast moan like I’d never heard before. Mosley’s cool rhythm set in “Abraham” ended in a horn-led, driving fury that made you passionately nod your head for the entire song. It was sexy, it was moving, it was powerful, and it was the future of music. Leaving that concert gave me shivers. I had just witnessed the second-coming of jazz, and these players were carrying that weight with ease.
The performances were awe-inspiring. The Jazz Beyond stages in and of themselves were a testament to San Jose’s place in the jazz world, not only nationally, but internationally. “The performances spanned generations and musical styles under a common thinking. They were a symbiosis of each of the artist’s creative fronts and the communities from which they come,” Tommy Aguilar said. “I can’t wait for what the future holds.”
Written by Anna Bagirov
Polaroids by Jay Aguilar