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Our must-see events at Charlotte Jazz Festival

 By Dan Cava

April 23, 2019

Charlotte Jazz Festival returns April 29 – May 4 to Uptown. For the last four years, the festival has served as the premier event for jazz lovers in the Queen City. The five-day event has been a triumph since its debut in 2016, and has distinguished itself with its high caliber talent, eclectic lineups, and its open-hearted posture toward the community.

One of the things we love most about CJF is the way it’s designed to create rich musical experiences for attendees at all budget levels. Yes, the festival features plenty of worth-every-penny paid events (if you’ve never had for the privilege of seeing living legend Wynton Marsalis play trumpet in person, it might be time to splurge), but it also boasts an extraordinary amount of free performances, where the only price of admission is the small time it takes to ride the light rail into Uptown.

The festival also caters to all levels of jazz love, from casual fan to die-hard deep-cut elite, and this year’s offerings are some of the strongest yet. If you can’t go to everything (and you can’t– some of the festival’s events happen at the same time as each other), we’ve picked out six “must see” performances to help guide you through getting the most of this year’s lineup.

Two Jazz Generations at Once:

Camille Thurman and the Darrell Green Trio with special guest Wynton Marsalis, Wednesday (May 1) at 7:30 p.m. – Tickets: $24.50 plus 

The first major event of the fest is always special, and this year’s kickoff occurs at one of CJF’s home bases, The Jazz Garden Tent at Romare Bearden. Thirty-two-year-old singer-sax phenomenon Camile Thurman has been playing with drummer Darrell Green’s combo quite a bit in the last year, so their chemistry is sure to be red hot on opening night. But the cherry on the evening’s treat will be the moments when Thurman is joined on stage by Wynton Marsalis, jazz music’s preeminent ambassador and perhaps America’s most celebrated living trumpet player.

Camille Thurman. Photo courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts

Hypnotize Your Hips (For Half The Price):

Havana Nights with Gino Castillo & The Cuban Cowboys on Thursday (May 2) at 7:30 p.m. – Tickets: $9 plus 

Our recommendation for Thursday night takes you back to the Jazz Garden Tent for a night of electric Latin grooves. Gino Castillo’s weekly Havana Nights showcase is a staple of Charleston, SC’s nightlife, and he and his cowboys are bringing their Latin Jazz dance party to night two of the festival. When done right (and Castillo does it right) the polyrhythmic percussion of Latin Jazz has a tendency to lock people onto the dance floor for hours on end. And at only $10, “Havana Nights” has the cheapest entry fee of all the CJF’s paid events.

A New Masterwork of Motion and Music:

Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra presents Wynton Marsalis’ Spaces on Friday (May 3) at 7:30 p.m. – Tickets: $25 plus 

Each year, the Knight Theater houses two marquee evenings with Lincoln Center’s legendary jazz orchestra. While the “Future of Jazz Orchestra” event on Thursday looks enticing, our pick is Friday’s unveiling of “Spaces,” Wynton Marsalis’ new composition for orchestra and dance. (Marsalis himself won’t be at this one, but if you follow our advice above, you will have already seen him play on Wednesday night.) Billed as “a playful and wildly entertaining exploration of the animal kingdom,” the music alone, as played by what is possibly the greatest big band in the world, sounds pretty irresistible. The added attraction of seeing the sounds interpreted on stage by two world-class dancers (“jookin’” dance artist Myles Yachts and Broadway tap artist Jared Grimes) makes Friday at the Knight the most must-see event of the weekend.

Magic Before Midnight: 

Light Night Jams on Friday + Saturday (May 3 + 4) at 11 p.m. – Tickets: Free 

Spontaneity is the soul of jazz, so making music with strangers at the wee hours is one of the jazziest things jazz musicians do. Enter: the Late Night Jams. On Friday and Saturday nights at 11 p.m., a grab bag of the festival’s many professional musicians will roll up to the Knight Underground, and just…go. If previous years’ jams are any indication, these nocturnal improvs generate some of the most musically exciting moments of the week. And the only thing it’ll cost you is some sleep, because the Late Night Jams are completely free. These tend to fill up fast, and the heat of the night is best felt up close, so get there early.

Photo: Phillip Hoffman

Follow The Music, Literally:

Second Line Parade on Saturday (May 4) at 4:30 p.m. – Tickets: Free 

The “second line” is one of the great community traditions to come out of the birthplace of jazz: New Orleans, Louisiana. A kind of moving party, a second line parade occurs when a brass band (the “first line”) marches down the street and, instead of merely watching from the sidelines, all the people get in line and march along with them. Second lines are simple, joyful, family friendly (you’ll see plenty of strollers), deeply communal, and completely free. If you can walk and smile at the same time, lace up and get to Levine Plaza on Saturday afternoon.

Courtesy of Blumenthal Performing Arts

A TV Star Channels a Radio Legend:

Patina Miller Sings Nina Simone on Saturday (May 4) at 7:30 p.m. – Tickets: $34.50 plus 

Like opening night, the festival’s closing night performance takes two legends separated by time and brings them together. The extraordinary songs of the late, great Nina Simone will be brought to life by Tony award-winning (and current star on CBS’ hit show Madam Secretary) Patina Miller. Miller is the kind of limitless talent that lights up whatever platform on which she finds herself, stage or screen, and her captivating abilities seem like the perfect match for Nina Simone’s soulful melodies. Connecting the past with the future is a not-so-subtle theme of the Charlotte Jazz Festival, and Saturday night’s celebration of old and new feels like the perfect way to cap things off.

Courtesy of Strathmore and Margot Schulman Photography

For tickets and a full schedule of events happening April 29 – May 4, check out CharlotteJazzFestival.com

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