a departure from tradition means a fresh start for tri-c jazzfest

Terri Pontremoli has a vision for the Tri-C JazzFest's first foray into summer. The event director imagines thousands of Clevelanders gathered in the newly chandeliered U.S. Bank Plaza (formerly Star Plaza), enjoying the early evening sunshine and a host of free outdoor music events. Close by, Playhouse Square's multiple indoor venues are packed with genre enthusiasts whose finger-snapping exuberance has helped make JazzFest the must-attend extravaganza that it has been for the last 34 years.
Whether this vision comes to life or not will be determined when the festival's 35th installment hits its first note later this week, marking an official shift from an annual 10-day event in April to a single summer weekend, June 26-28.
The new schedule is an experiment for the annual affair by Cuyahoga Community College, one made necessary due to practical reasons and a desire to help transform downtown into a warm weather music destination.
"We think Cleveland is ready for it," says Pontremoli.
Feeling hot, hot, hot
The previous format had always been spread out over two weekends in the cruel weather month of April, making the scheduling of outdoor concerts a risky proposition at best, Pontremoli notes. Putting together the programming was made doubly difficult by having to work around the holidays of Easter and Passover.
"We were constantly switching dates every year because of the holidays," she says. "It was like trying to assemble a jigsaw puzzle."
Moving to a single weekend in summer clears up not only the weather snarls, but also allows promoters to market the festival as a compact, centralized happening in the heart of a growing theater and residential district.
"We felt like we were wearing out our local audience and not attracting an outside audience," Pontremoli says of recent JazzFests. "Now it will be easier for people who just want to get in their cars and go somewhere for the weekend."
The shift to a quiet time in theater season also means not having to battle for venue space at Playhouse Square, the longtime home of the concert series. Multiple auditoriums within the district will host multiple shows on the same day, starting with the Sean Jones Quartet and the Cleveland Jazz Orchestra at the Ohio Theatre on June 26 at 7 p.m. Nine different shows are slated for the Hanna, Ohio and Palace theaters on Saturday alone.
"For jazz fans who want to immerse themselves, it's going to be heaven," says Pontremoli.
JazzFest's fresh set-up is modeled after similar undertakings in Montreal and all across Europe. Montreal, for example, supports three outdoor stages within walking distance of clubs and theaters hosting ticketed shows. Cleveland's version of this format includes free concerts on U.S. Bank Plaza featuring local bands and an all-festival pass for those wanting to take in as many indoor shows as possible.
The outdoor programming, sponsored by The Cleveland Foundation, will feature a variety of acts designed to keep the party going until midnight. "We could not have done that in April," says Pontremoli.
Come on over
Tri-C announced the refurbished festival schedule last November with the intention of drawing jazz aficionados from the region and beyond. Fans of the genre are known for following their favorite musicians, says Pontremoli, and organizers have been reaching out via social media as well as radio and billboard advertising.
For Pontremoli, a former classical violinist who has been spearheading large-scale jazz concerts in Cleveland and Detroit since the early 1990s, it's about creating a vibrant atmosphere that coincides with JazzFest's milestone anniversary and downtown's ongoing revitalization. She hopes the pull is strong enough to attract people not just from Northeast Ohio, but also Toledo, Detroit and Pittsburgh.    
"That community impact is really important," Pontremoli says. "You want that critical mass of visitors going to bars, enjoying restaurants and visiting the casino."
Meanwhile, veteran JazzFest attendees have been mostly supportive of the calendar shift, although some have expressed concerns that the compressed schedule will make for some tight time frames between shows. Pontremoli cannot make any promises that all will go smoothly, but she's excited to see Tri-C's "experiment" in action.
"It's the right thing to do," she says. "When we're finished we'll have some clarity moving forward."
Jazz as a genre has always been revered for its ability to reinvent itself, Pontremoli says. A newfound flexibility will better serve both the signature concert series and its audience as they embark together on this new adventure.
"The festival can tie together all the good things happening in Cleveland," says Pontremoli. "We're always going to be thinking about how we can make things better." 

Read more articles by Douglas J. Guth.

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to Fresh Water, his work has been published by Midwest Energy News, Kaleidoscope Magazine and Think, the alumni publication of Case Western Reserve University. A die-hard Cleveland sports fan, he also writes for the cynically named (yet humorously written) blog Cleveland Sports Torture.