Features

Jazz & Roots Festival Brings People, Energy to Springfield

Striking a Chord

By Kayla Ebner

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint Springfield, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures.

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music. That’s where a wall becomes a bridge.”

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