For decades Sacramento was known as the “epicenter” of traditional jazz. The city hosted one of the world's largest trad jazz festivals, originally called The Old Sacramento Dixieland Jazz Jubilee, put on by the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society. Over the years attendance began to wane and organizers re-branded the event as the Sacramento Music Festival, branching out to include other musical styles such as rock and pop in hopes of attracting a wider audience.
At the time there were rumblings in the region that the audience for traditional jazz was dying off.
Organizers of the Sacramento Music Festival, which still features more trad jazz each May than any other style of music, say that isn’t the case. In fact a second festival called the Hot Jazz Jubilee sprang up three years ago. It has since expanded to a larger venue and takes place this weekend.
Organizers of both events and musicians alike believe there are plenty of people interested in the art form, enough to keep the scene alive and growing.
Patrick Skiffington plays in the hot jazz band, The Crescent Katz, which will perform at the Hot Jazz Jubilee. He says everyone in his band came out of the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society’s youth education program.
“We’re all pushing 40 now,” says Skiffington, who thinks traditional jazz is in a “tri-vival.” The first wave refers to pre-war jazz, followed by a trad jazz revival in the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Skiffington credits this renewed interest in dixieland and ragtime to shows like HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and the YouTube channel “Postmodern Jukebox,” which features covers of contemporary pop songs performed in styles of the past such as doo wop and swing.
Skiffington says the STJS does a great job engaging young musicians and catering to the core jazz audience of people over 60, but middle-aged listeners have been left out. He says they’re just now being introduced to this music through pop culture. Often they don’t even know what they’re listening to. They just know they like it, according to Skiffington.
“It’s all these millennials that have absolutely no frame of reference for that sound,” he says about the new audience coming into the scene. “So the traditional jazz societies are pulling their collective heads out of their butts and reaching out to the younger audience.”
Founder Ken McMurray put together the Hot Jazz Jubilee when he saw that the Sacramento Music Festival was starting to cut back on its traditional jazz offerings.
“I saw their movement away from pure trad jazz and they were losing all the older people that really appreciated the music,” says McMurray. “So I had a hairbrained idea about starting a festival and everyone told me I was crazy.”
McMurray says while the majority of those attending the Hot Jazz Jubilee this weekend at Sacramento’s Doubletree Hotel will be over 65, he’s making an effort to reach out to young people.
“Our goal is to introduce it to the younger generation and hopefully they will keep it alive,” says McMurray. “A good amount of the younger kids are going back to the swing dancing, lindy-hop, that retro stuff.”
Even though the the Sacramento Music Festival has expanded to include a variety of styles, STJS membership chair Kathy Becker says the festival’s main focus remains unchanged.
“Trad jazz is still our core and always will be,” says Becker. “We’re getting new members signing up every single month. People are dying off but new people are coming in.”
And, says Becker, momentum around the artform is growing.
“I see an upswing. We have our jazz camp every year. Ninety students can sign up, and they were overbooked, the kids couldn’t get in. It’s building back up again.”
The Crescent Katz’s Patrick Skiffington sees that trend as well.
“We’re on the swell I don’t think it’s crested yet.”