Nothing says summer quite like jazz: they are both relaxed yet spontaneous, fun, and lively. The annual Cambridge Jazz Festival took place this year on July 26. Located in University Park (just a couple of streets behind Simmons Hall), it was the perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The free festival drew the attention of people from all different walks of life — young children and longtime jazz aficionados alike all sat together in the grass enjoying the live music and the sunshine.
I arrived at the festival around 3 p.m. with my good friend, Ben Harpt ‘18 (what better company than a member of MIT’s very own Festival Jazz Ensemble?). We arrived just as the Lazlo Gardony Sextet began to play. Their performance was fun, upbeat, and energetic. As Ben told me about jazz’s unique style, techniques, and history, I noticed that he couldn’t help but tap his foot to the music. The band was composed of a bassist and a drummer who established the rhythm and beat of the piece, three tenor saxophonists who added melody, and a pianist who unified the two components. Ben, a saxophonist himself, was automatically intrigued by the inclusion of the three saxophones in the band. The interesting and dynamic interplay between the three definitely demonstrated their technical skill as they played together to establish the primary melody of the song. Ben told me to listen carefully “when they play together, [because] each sax is at a slightly different key, helping to create a textured and complex sound.”
The members of the band would then occasionally break off to play improvised solos, the defining characteristic and my favorite part of jazz music. It is during these improvised moments that one can truly see the soul and personality of each musician. While improvisation allows us to see the artist’s own voice, it also helps us to see who inspires them. These improvisations are in direct conversation with their predecessors, with the men and women who developed jazz music into what it is today. Ben told me, for instance, that “Gardony’s music draws elements from 1920s Dixieland and 1960s Post-Bop, but he adds his own contemporary twist.” More so than many other forms of art, jazz music is the communication and representation of both the self and of history.
And just like jazz itself, this event focused on highlighting and celebrating who we are and where we come from. We are all products of our past and of our community, which is something to be embraced and celebrated. This year, the festival was dedicated to commemorating Billie Holiday’s profound influence on the jazz world.
Following Gardony was Nnenna Freelon, an incredible jazz vocalist who captivated the audience with a voice that made you feel like you got transported back in time. She opened with Ella Fitzgerald’s “Blue Skies,” and then continued with a tribute to Holiday. After her performance, she proudly announced to the audience that she was born and raised in Cambridge. Despite all the places life took her and despite her many successes (which include performing around the world, recording several albums, and receiving six Grammy nominations), she will always return here, where it all began.
But in addition to celebrating the past, the Cambridge Jazz Festival also celebrates the future. The event’s proceeds go to the Johnny Hodges Fund, a fund created in the hopes of helping young, aspiring musicians in Cambridge pursue their passions.