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Jazz festival maintains its street-party soul

| Monday, June 23, 2014, 7:21 p.m.

Jazz festivals should be more than simply a collection of concerts.

They should be celebrations of the music. Festive, as the word implies.

Because it is that kind of party in the streets, the Pittsburgh JazzLive International Festival is a delight. Here's hoping it stays that way.

The festival, which dominated the Cultural District, Downtown, June 20 through 22, has grown up quite a bit in its four years. It has added bigger stars and better shows each year, moving from the Clayton Brothers through Marcus Miller to Dianne Reeves.

But the most important element has been that Janis Burley Wilson, the vice president from the Cultural Trust who puts jazz programs together, has kept in on the streets. She hasn't felt the need for a big event with hefty sponsorship inside some concert hall. Or, if she has, the temptation hasn't been great enough.

The result is a festival everybody can enjoy. And it is a festival with a sense of democracy, too.

The trust puts up seats for its donors and friends in front of the two biggest concert areas. But those seats have always been on one side of the area in front of the stage. The other is open to the less generous who can bring their folding chairs.

So those jazz fans can hear the music at the same distance as the contributors. All they have to do is lug around their furniture. That's fair, right?

The festival also was a great celebration of types of music. Nothing showed that better than the June 22 performance of El Gran Combo, which gave the area's Latino population a chance to dance in the streets.

Minutes after that show, however, the Pittsburgh Jazz Orchestra took on big-band jazz in another with some new charts by Mike Tomaro. His arrangement of the theme from “The French Connection” was electrifying. As one friend said, “This is why we're here.”

Jazz festivals here in the past have been concert-hall oriented, and they have had great moments in them. Thelonious Monk at the Civic Arena. Miles Davis at Heinz Hall. It's hard to criticize those shows.

But it's hard to pass up a weekend party.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.

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