Hamptons Jazz Fest Heats Up Summer on the East End - 27 East

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Hamptons Jazz Fest Heats Up Summer on the East End

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Joel Chriss and Claes Brondal during Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Joel Chriss and Claes Brondal during Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Claes Brondal and Joel Chriss during Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Claes Brondal and Joel Chriss during Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Joel Chriss and Claes Brondal during Jazz Night at Masonic Temple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Joel Chriss and Claes Brondal during Jazz Night at Masonic Temple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Pere Nevarro, Randy Brecker, Billy Drewes, Omar Kabir, Su Terry performing live at Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Pere Nevarro, Randy Brecker, Billy Drewes, Omar Kabir, Su Terry performing live at Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Santi Debriano performing at Jazz Night at the MasonicTemple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Santi Debriano performing at Jazz Night at the MasonicTemple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Su Terry and Santi Debriano performing at Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Su Terry and Santi Debriano performing at Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple. ANTHONY LOMBARDO

Dan Ouellette on Jun 18, 2023

The South Fork has always been a haven for creatives, especially from the visual arts world, from Willem de Kooning to Nanette Carter. Today the Hamptons has become an unlikely hotbed of jazz activity that remarkably is turning heads and opening ears, not just in the primetime summer but all year long. The Hamptons may be stereotyped as a summer playground for the wealthy and celebrities with lavish parties in exclusive mansions. But these days, the appreciation of jazz as a fine art is the new, revitalizing talk of the town.

Now entering its third season with more than 30 shows from June 29 to early September in various venues from Southampton to Montauk, the Hamptons Jazz Festival launched in 2021 with a humble, home-spun liftoff.

The festival was initially sparked by a weekly community gathering called The Jam Session (now Jazz Night) founded in 2009 by Denmark-born, Sag Harbor-based drummer Claes Brondal. In its first home at Sag Harbor’s popular Bayburger, owned by John Landes with his daughter and son-in-law, Liza and Joe Tremblay, local jazz artists converged, augmented by guests from New York City — the center of the jazz universe a short 80 miles distance away.

In February, in the darkest days of this past frigid winter, Jazz Night’s new home at the high-ceilinged, funky, intimate Masonic Temple above the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum was packed with a cadre of regulars. Seventy locals weathered the cold to come hear the magic featuring East Hampton jazz superstar Randy Brecker.

Now, as the days have gotten longer and milder, the shows continue to attract the regulars but also intrigue fair-weather visitors. Brondal says that in April, 60 percent of the Jazz Night audience was newcomers, a testament that the interest is growing.

In early June, the donation-only Jazz Night featured top-tier bassist Santi Debriano and his superb band that also featured Brondal on drums. Attendance? Seventy, just four shy of the week before. The jams half of the show took improvisational fire with several locals, including trumpeter Dick Behrke and alto saxophonist John Ludlow, among others.

Landes says the Jam Session started by attracting a mere six people in the house, but within five years it was drawing large crowds on Thursday nights. The late Wally Smith, the general manager of WPPB-FM (now WLIW), liked what he heard and began taping the shows for Sunday night broadcasts (now at 8 p.m.) and available at wliw.org.

Steeped in the sounds of rock ’n’ roll, Landes didn’t start out as a jazz fan. But he fully caught the jazz bug inspired by Brondal’s enthusiasm and commitment.

“Claes and I had a mission,” Landes says. “So together we decided to put together a 501(c) 3 nonprofit organization called The Jam Session, Inc. We started to look for support from donors. That was slow at first, but it proved to lay the groundwork for our future.”

A key player to the prospect of staging a full-fledged festival came when renowned top-tier jazz booking agent, concert promoter and artist manager Joel Chriss retired from the New York life and settled in Montauk and today East Hampton.

“When I first moved out here some 13 years ago, I was excited to discover a burgeoning jazz scene,” he says. “When I walked away from my J. Chriss & Co. booking agency in 2018, I wanted to create a jazz community that maybe could do a concert series or set up a club. Originally, I thought about starting something up north in the Hudson area overlooking the river. But coming east and having the Atlantic Ocean nearby will certainly do.”

Chriss was invited to be a board member of The Jam Session Inc.

“I knew I could be helpful because of my experience in the jazz world for such a long time,” he says. “Claes had already established a good thing, and I slowly recommended artists. But being involved in just The Jam Session didn’t get me up in the morning. I’ve had this idea in my head — I think forever — to do something much bigger.”

It wasn’t long before Chriss floated the idea to the board of putting on a jazz festival.

“Everyone loved the idea and were very supportive,” he says. “But we needed to get the financial support system.”

Finally it arrived when a wealthy, anonymous businessman who loved jazz fronted the group a large sum of money in March 2021 to stage the first festival. But the stipulation was that the fest would start three months later.

“I don’t know how we did it in such a short amount of time, but we pulled it off,” says Chriss.

Because of such short notice, there was no time to promote it or get editorial support, but word of the festival got out through social media and Brondal’s rallying cry at The Jam Session.

The team put on close to 40 outdoor shows during the heat of COVID-19 where participants were masked and concert viewers stood six feet apart.

The organization didn’t have a lot of time to secure venues, but many major spaces offered their houses, including Gosman’s Dock in Montauk, the Parrish Art Museum in Water Mill, the Southampton Arts Center and the newly opened renovated gem of a building, The Church in Sag Harbor. Money was raised for each show, but attendees came in free.

“I collaborated with Joel about artists and funding,” Brondal says. “I compare his arrival to fishing with a rod and then having a trawler with nets come along to scoop up a variety of fish. Joel had such a large access to artists because of his connections. My artistic vision and his access has helped us to fill a cultural void.”

“This really is Claes’s baby,” says Chriss. “If I’m the godfather, Claes is the biological father. John is the founder of the nonprofit with Claes, and without his council the Hamptons Jazz Festival would have never seen the daylight. I came late to the party, but I have brought in some interesting guests.”

In 2022, the Hamptons Jazz Fest grew into another season of ticketed events to pay the venues and good rates for the artists. The fest was highlighted by Wynton Marsalis bringing his big band to the intimate, 150-seat Southampton Arts Center in early July.

“Another donor who knows corporate people internationally approached me and said, ‘If you can get Wynton and his band, I’ll pay for it,’” Chriss says. “We staged it partly as a fundraiser for the festival, and they put on a great show.”

Other multicultural marquee jazz artists played last year, including Paquito D’Rivera, Ravi Coltrane and Santi Debriano.

Debriano has been a regular supporter of the Hamptons scene for several years. He frequently shows up at the Jazz Night, and in 2021 he debuted his riveting big band Arkestra Bembe at the festival. He returns with the band this summer on July 1 at the Southampton Arts Center.

“The festival gave my new nine-piece Arkestra a chance to introduce ourselves,” says Debriano, relaxing after his Jazz Night show recently. “The band was formed in my cellar during the pandemic. So this offered us a time to generate beyond ourselves.”

Debriano is a vet of the ups-and-downs jazz scene.

“There’s nothing new about jazz being seen as a subculture,” he says. “I’ll be playing for 40 to 50 people here, and then maybe a 100 there. But the festival brings us the crowd we deserve. It’s magnificent.”

For this year, more donors are coming forth, and tickets for shows are being reserved online. The bulk of the 30-plus shows, beginning with the June 29 kick off with superb vocalist Nicole Zuraitis and the Don Pugach Nonet at The Church, are locked in.

Featured shows at Southampton Arts Center include saxophone elder Houston Person with German drummer Peter Weiss (July 6) and The Harlem Gospel Choir (August 25). Other spotlight artists include drummer Joe Farnsworth’s band, North Forker Gil Goldstein, the Charles McPherson-Randy Brecker bebop celebration of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, a piano set by New York’s Small’s club runner Spike Wilner, Craig Handy’s quintet, jazz-soul singer Sarah Elizabeth Charles, drummer Matt Wilson, and Montauk resident and festival artistic consultant Bill O’Connell with piano-based showcases and a set with Craig Handy and Billy Hart.

The weekly Tuesday Jazz Night at the Masonic Temple with additional high-profiled players will continue during the entirety of the festival. “People love it here,” says Chriss. “It’s an intimate and quirky place with a bar that sells wine and beer for $5. A caterer comes in with Indian food in a box for sale. And the music brings the people back. It’s like 1968’s jazz loft scene.”

Chriss notes that he’s heard a lot of people say, hey it’s jazz, so you should be showcasing this in a fancy restaurant that’s selling $200 bottles of wine. “That’s the impression of how to successfully present jazz in the Hamptons,” he says with a smirk. “But we went to the polar opposite. We sell out the 75 seats every week at a basic level. Jazz Night is the underpinning that allows us to build things bigger.”

Chriss wants to continue to expand the community of jazz lovers — yearlong locals as well as the torrent of tourists during the summer.

“We get people who are curious, who don’t know much,” he says. “So we bring them to a friendly place with music that’s slightly above their music comprehension. But if the jazz is not too far out, they catch up quickly. Those who visit will come and lend us their ears. If the standard is world class, they’ll continue to follow their ears. They’ll keep coming and help us spread the jazz message.”

Brondal sees that the East End is returning to its roots as a vital scene of live music. He admits that a cross-cultural sentiment has been rare in the Hamptons. But that wasn’t always the case. He harks back to the whaling days.

“Then people from all over world were here, in the streets,” he says. “Lots of different languages were spoken. Traditions were shared, And the big contribution was the variety of music from different cultures they brought with them.”

Noting that the Hamptons jazz scene today has increasingly begun to incorporate music from Latin America, the Middle East and especially vital music from the African-American world, Brondal happily says that’s been the goal. He’s hoping the festival serves to reunite the East End with today’s wider multicultural movement.

For details, dates and pricing on all the Hamptons Jazz Fest concerts, visit hamptonsjazzfest.org.

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