Jazz Festival transforms Fillmore District of San Francisco into free live music mecca

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Imad Pasha/Staff

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Had one taken a walk down the 12 blocks of Fillmore Street between Jackson and Eddy this last weekend, one would have heard a different song with every step — only to hear an entirely new crop of artists on a second pass.

That’s the magic of the Fillmore Jazz Festival, a free, open-t0-the-public event in which musicians — hardly restricted to the jazz genre — dazzled crowds with their exceptional technique.

The festival was organized around each city block, almost all of which accommodated a main stage at one end — featuring groups like the Electric Squeezebox Orchestra, a big band brimming with playful, joyous brass and punctuated by a sizzling saxophone solo — followed by the rest of the block, packed with vendor booths and smaller stage setups.  

The festival, however, was hardly exclusive to musicians performing on the main stages bookending each city block — artists popped up left and right along the crowded streets, usually nestled between permanent establishments but occasionally checkerboarding between the temporary food booths and wares tents.

One group of men initiated a freestyle rap battle in the street and managed to coax a few bold participants into dropping a verse or two, but those too frightened to rap themselves may have taken joy in laying witness to the sermonizing raps of street musician Sister Jones. Meanwhile, a young girl camped in front of the Extreme Pizza at Fillmore and Post attracted a sizable audience with nothing but an electronic keyboard and her disarmingly powerful voice.

Just next door to her, in the nook carved out by stairs leading to the bay window styled building housing SBCo., Groove 8 — a Charlotte-based band featuring several saxes up front, held aloft by a funky electric guitar and two percussionists — performed a polished set of harder, beat-driven tracks. A festival highlight, the group drew one of the most packed in crowds of the day Sunday.

Perhaps strangely, had someone stumbled upon the festivities on Fillmore Street, they may not have been able to immediately discern that this was, in fact, a jazz festival. Setlists incorporated just as many — if not more — songs from outside the jazz genre, including classic rock, dance club hits and rap, the latter dominating at a popular DJ booth.

One performer masterfully tiptoed the line between embracing the jazz theme and promoting her own unique sound. Moorea Dickason captured within her impressive set a striking diversity, weaving iconic works from Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington together with classic hits by U2.

“I’ve definitely noticed less jazz at jazz festivals, generally speaking,” Dickason remarked in an interview. “I threw in a couple jazz tunes, and I was like, ‘Oh, do people even want to hear this?’ ” In part, she saw the wide variety of tunes as the genre’s prerogative: “Anything’s jazz now,” she said. “Jazz is like the original punk rock — jazz is experimental and pushes musical boundaries.”

According to Dickason, the festival’s coordinators did not provide any stringent musical direction; bands were invited to play music that best highlighted their own talents. This paid off in droves for Dickason, who was able to show off particularly remarkable variety and range — her gentle, sultry runs pulling her audience inward, her dynamic belts reverberating down the block. The spellbinding performance was hardly dampered by ruthless wind or the fact that Dickason had self-admittedly selected many of the pieces at the last-minute.

“When I do gigs like this, I enjoy picking things I’ve never done — just experimenting, trying them out — and honestly one of the more fun, exhilarating things to do for me as a performing artist is to do a song for the very first time,” explained Dickason. “You have no idea how it’s going to go, what’s going to happen — you’re flying by the seat of your pants. It’s like being on a cliff.”

It’s a sentiment that perfectly captures the spirit of jazz music that lies at the festival’s core — that of spontaneity, exploration and accessibility. Jazz may not be the music of the modern era, but one thing has been made abundantly clear: it has no plans for disappearing anytime soon.

Shannon O’Hara is the assistant arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].