When the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning decided the time was right to welcome fans back for live jazz performances, the group decided to go big.
Ravi Coltrane, saxophonist, band leader and son of jazz legend John Coltrane, will headline the two-day Downtown Jamaica Jazz Festival, which is scheduled for noon to 7:30 p.m. the weekend of May 15 and 16. Coltrane’s show, beginning at 6 p.m. on Sunday, will close out the festival, which will take place on the lawn at the Jamaica Performing Arts Center at 153-10 Jamaica Ave.
Admission is free but RSVPs, which can be made online at jcal.org, are recommended as only 100 people will be permitted on the grounds at a time.
“This is a continuation of a festival we last had in 2019,” said Leonard Jacobs, interim executive director at JCAL, in a telephone interview with the Chronicle. “Here’s the really important thing — it’s a mixture of veteran jazz musicians and emerging jazz musicians, most of them local. And the greater idea was that we had a terrific lawn in front of the Jamaica Performing Arts Center.
“It’s time to get back to life in some way. Safely, obviously, but to try to get back to life through music, through being outside. It’s spring. It’s a kind of celebration. People are hungry for something cool to do and see where they go to get their minds off what we’ve all gone through and collectively been through.”
Jacobs said JCAL received generous funding from its friends on the City Council for the festival. Sponsors also include Flushing Bank and Con Edison.
The lineup begins at noon on Saturday, May 15, with singer Samara Joy, winner of the 2019 Sarah Vaughn International jazz Vocal Competition. She will be followed by Harlem native and saxophonist Godwin Louis at 2 p.m.; Grammy-nominated singer Becca Stevens at 4 p.m.; and saxophonist and composer Miguel Zen—n at 6 p.m.
Sunday’s bill features Joel Ross, a 2017 recipient of a residency commission from The Jazz Gallery in Manhattan, at noon; saxophonist Melissa Aldana at 2 p.m.; singer Sachal Vasandani at 4 p.m.; and the Grammy-nominated Coltrane bringing the festival home beginning at 6 p.m.
Jacobs said there will be an outdoor stage and all required Covid-19 precautions will remain in order, such as mandated masks and social distancing.
But he also said JPAC’s location, in the heart of Downtown Jamaica, should accommodate all interested in dropping by over the weekend.
“We know the lawn is big enough,” Jacobs said. “If we have 100 people, we can have social distancing. They’re safe and welcome to enjoy the music. Anyone can RSVP because even at 100 people, they are going to come and go over the course of the day. People have got things to do. They’ll go shopping, or go get something to eat. They’re going to come and go.”
JCAL hopes to have decent crowds for all the performances.
While the festival will serve as JCAL’s formal return, the organization was determined to combat Covid as quickly as it could for the benefit of its patrons and fans.
“Once we could open up our offices again we started running our facilities,” Jacobs said. “We’ve been live-streaming jazz performances once a month since last October, with no live audience until recently. We’ve been showing things on our Youtube channel for 50 to 100 people and then to a few hundred thereafter.”
The selection of artists, he said, was the result of a collaboration of JCAL’s interim Artistic Director Courtney Ffrench and Rio Sakari, artistic director of the Jazz Gallery.
Jacobs said his group is raring to go at the prospect of a large, live audience again.
“We really want the community to feel welcome and safe and excited,” Jacobs said. “We want them to feel like they’re a part of that rebirth.”