Jazz, America’s gift to the world, continues to evolve and cut new musical terrain at this premier festival in the East Bay hills.
by Suzanne Rodriguez
At its best, summer is a time for play, freedom, spontaneity, improvisation and celebration.
This summer—as happens every year—jazz festivals take place across the planet, from familiar locations like Canada, France and Switzerland to far-flung destinations such as Azerbaijan, Nepal and Borneo. It’s the jazziest time of the year, hands down. George Gershwin had it right: “Summertime, an’ the livin’ is easy.”
So whether you’re a long-time jazz aficionado or a newbie aiming to explore the music’s catchy rhythms and free-wheeling improvisations, why not plan a summer 2019 jazz getaway?
U. S. residents needn’t fly far—or even board a plane. More jazz festivals are held here than in any other country, and chances are good that a summer jazz fest is happening somewhere close to you. While many big-city jazz celebrations are scheduled (San Francisco and Houston, to name just two), there are even more in small locales such as Elmira, New York; Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts; Parker, Texas; Ellensburg, Washington; Keystone, Colorado; and dozens more.
One of this summer’s most talked-about jazz celebrations—the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival—occurs Saturday, August 3 in Concord, California, 30 miles east of San Francisco.
A Quick History of the Concord Jazz Festival
This summer marks the 50th Anniversary of the Concord Jazz Festival, started in 1969 by local business owner and jazz lover Carl Jefferson. To attract top performers, he enlisted the aid of his friend Jimmy Lyons, who founded the hugely successful Monterey Jazz Festival in 1958. The result? Concord’s first jazz festival was a six-day extravaganza that featured many among the “Who’s Who” of that era’s jazz musicians.
On opening night, a Tuesday, pianist and composer Erroll Garner and Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida (a co-creator of Bossa Nova), wowed the crowd. Following on Wednesday were Amici Della Musica chamber orchestra, Vince Guaraldi, and The Romero Guitar Quartet. On Thursday, Lalo Schiffren guest conducted the Oakland Symphony Orchestra for the world premiere of his “Dialogue for Jazz Quintet and Orchestra” (with guest Jean Luc Ponty on violin).
The crowd was swingin’ on Friday with Willie Bobo Sextet, Bola Sete Trio, Cal Tjader Quintet, and Stan Kenton and his Orchestra. Saturday welcomed the George Duke Trio, Jean Luc Ponty, Miss Carmen MacRae and her trio, and the Don Ellis Big Band. And signing off on Sunday night: drummer Shelly Manne, the “Velvet Voiced” Mel Torme, and the Buddy Rich Band.
About 17,000 people attended that first Concord Summer Festival, as it was then called. It ran from August 26-31, 1969, in a large grassy bowl at the town’s Concord Boulevard Park (renamed Dave Brubeck Park in 2006 to honor the legendary jazz pianist, composer and Concord native). Premium reserved chair seating ran a whopping $5 nightly ($25 for the entire series), while open lawn seating went for a bargain $3.
In 1973, Carl Jefferson moved deeper into the jazz world when he founded what was to become the renowned Concord Jazz label, home from its inception to major jazz recording artists. In 1975 the jazz festival moved to its current location at the Concord Pavilion.
Over the years the Concord Jazz Festival has featured a sensational list of performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, Miles Davis, Wynton and Bradford Marsalis, Carlos Santana, Oscar Peterson, Pearl Bailey, Benny Goodman, George Shearing, Gerry Mulligan, Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Byrd, Tony Bennett, Pete Escovedo & Sheila E, Herbie Hancock, Diana Krall and Dave Brubeck. And that’s just a start.
Part of the pleasure of attending the Concord Jazz Festival is its beautiful site amidst an immense backdrop of steep bluffs and high grassy fields—all located in the rolling foothills beneath 3,849-foot Mount Diablo.
Nestled into this magnificent scenery is the Concord Pavilion. An amphitheater designed by celebrated architect Frank Gehry, it’s roofed with exposed black steel trusses and open on three sides. There’s seating for 12,500, including a huge bowl-shaped lawn area. While listening to world-class jazz, the audience can watch the sun disappear in the west as the sky transitions through colorful reddish hues. Then darkness descends and the stars emerge.
This year’s Concord Jazz Festival features Dave Koz & Friends; Esperanza Spalding; Chick Corea & the Spanish Heart Band; The Legendary Count Basie Orchestra featuring Patti Austin, Jamison Ross, and Carmen Bradford in a set that celebrates the great Ella Fitzgerald; Poncho Sanchez & his Latin Jazz Band; and other guests yet to be announced. See below for planning details.
Jazz, Food and Fun
If you decide to turn the jazz festival into a vacation, staying for a few days before and/or after the jazz festival, you’ll find plenty to do in Concord.
Immerse Yourself in Jazz: With 10 days of celebratory events surrounding the festival—most of them free—you can jazz it up as much as you want. Don’t miss the Dave Brubeck Tribute Concert at downtown’s charming Todos Santos Plaza (8/4, 1-6:30 p.m.), featuring jazz saxophonist Mary Fettig and special guests Soul Sauce, John Santos & the Machette Ensemble, and Steve Snyder’s Big Band. Or try Tunes, Tacos & Tequila (a special menu/tequila tasting accompanied by Latin Jazz) at stylish eatery Puesto (8/5, 6-8 p.m.), or the Mixer & Live Jazz at Six Flags Hurricane Harbor (8/9, 7-10 p.m.). See the events for all ten days here.
Hike Mount Diablo: From the 3,849-foot peak of Mount Diablo you’ll catch one of the largest panoramic views in the western United States. Eight Bay Area bridges are visible, including the Golden Gate, and on clear days you’ll catch site of Sentinel Dome in Yosemite National Park to the east, the Farallon Islands to the west, south to Mount Loma Prieta in the Santa Cruz Mountains, and north almost 200 miles to Lassen Peak. But even on hazy or foggy days, the 360 view of mountains, valleys and waterways is stunning.
Check it out for yourself with a visit to the 20,000+ acres of Mount Diablo State Park. If you’re fit and want to burn off energy, hit the 13-mile loop trail from the Mitchell Canyon Interpretive Center to the summit (and back). Too much walking? Drive to the lower summit parking lot and head for the 0.7-mile Mary Bowerman Trail, which circles the summit: great views, wildflowers, including rare species, in spring and early summer. The first one-third is wheelchair accessible and includes the awesome Ransome Point overlook.
Definitely check out the park’s visitor center in the castle-like Summit Building, built in the 1930s by the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), with its terrific museum explaining the human history, geology and eco-systems of the mountain.
Choose from 25 Global Cuisines: Concord is definitely a good place to eat well; you can choose among 25 different culinary ethnicities. Just for starters, consider:LiMA’s contemporary California/Peruvian cuisine, Pisco cocktails and open, high-energy atmosphere. Plate & Vine’s farm-to-table California cuisine with a soupçon of French influence, wine bar stocked with Northern California wines, and both indoor and patio dining. Monas Burgers, where grassfed beef meets the burger and beyond. Choose from a dozen burgers, from Classic to Truffle, and much more (the fries are perfect). Puesto’s upscale, innovative Mexican cuisine (Tamarindo Shrimp tacos, Guacamole with pomegranate and mango), along with tequila or mezcal flights and astonishing decor.
Or maybe you’d prefer Brazilian, German, Indian, Japanese, Korean…? No problem. Visit here to find help in making your choice.
Hit the Craft Beer Trail: Concord has a vibrant craft beer community, and the easiest way to learn about it is to do some serious research at each member of the Beer Trail:Epidemic Ales Taproom & Brewery, which has a surprisingly amusing apocalyptic theme going on, offers yardstick-length flights; it’s a colorful, hopping place. Food trucks are parked outside. Kid- and dog-friendly. The Hop Grenade has 21 taps offering local beers and picks from around the country; it’s also HQ of The Brewing Network, a live radio show dedicated to zymology (the science of fermentation, the process that creates beer and other culinary goodies). The menu—sandwiches, tacos, and small bites—offers suggested beer parings. Concord Tap House, with 24 rotating taps spouting beer from local and west coast breweries; good bar food, too (Shanghai Lumpia, Loaded Fries, Catfish Sliders). E. J. Phair Brewing Company, with 15 drafts, most local but also some national picks; good pub grub (Seared Ahi Salad, Burgers, Buffalo Wings), and all-day happy hour on Mondays.
Do Something New & Delightful: Free your inner Willy Wonka by taking a hands-on chocolate workshop at Concord’s Rachel Dunn Chocolates. Held on the working floor of the company’s chocolate factory, you’ll learn to make American and French chocolates such as Fresh Cream Chocolate Truffles, Tuxedo Dipped Strawberries, Sea Salt Caramels, and many others (choices vary at each class). The classes run from 1 to 1.5 hours and are lots of fun. Reservations required; fee is $55/person.
What: Concord 50th Anniversary Jazz Festival
Where: Concord Pavilion, 2000 Kirker Pass Rd., Concord, CA 94521
When: August 3, 2019. Doors open at 2 p.m., with music starting at 4 p.m.
Tickets: $40-$150. Purchase online at livenation.com or at the Concord Pavilion Box Office. Bonus: An exclusive commemorative album of music by the featured artists will be included with every pair of tickets purchased for the 50th Anniversary Concord Jazz Festival.
Listen: To hear a free jazz playlist on Spotify, visit Bit.lY/VisitConcord. Requires a free Spotify account.
Recommended Hotel: The Concord Hilton Hotel, 1970 Diamond Blvd., Concord, CA 94520. Modern, handsomely appointed, excellent restaurant, swimming pool, amenities. Visit the website.
Other Hotels: To explore other Concord hotels and motels, visit this page.
Booking Bonus: Stay at one of Concord’s hotel properties August 2-4, 2019 and receive a $50 gift card with your reservation. Once you book in Concord, simply email email@example.com to redeem your gift card.
–Photography courtesy of VisitConcord.
Suzie Rodriguez writes on a variety of subjects—including travel, outdoor adventure, food, wine and people—from her wine-country base in Sonoma, California.