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Shuffle: JazzFest's 40th Celebrates Jazz Greats Past and Present

Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland has grown from a small festival for students into a year-round jazz destination. On this week’s Shuffle, WKSU’s Mark Arehart explores JazzFest’s 40th celebration with Director Terri Pontremoli.

Pontremoli has been involved with JazzFest for 30 of its 40 years. She’s seen the best of the best take the stage in Cleveland, but one moment shines bright: Ella Fitzgerald's performance in 1992.

"She was really not in good health ... ," Pontremoli said. "When she got on stage, it was like 40 years melted away. She was so vital and so strong."

The audience cheered for four or five encores, Pontremoli remembers. "The audience just wouldn’t let her go."

"It turned out that was one of her last performances in her life," she added. "That’s a really vivid memory to me. I get goosebumps when I just think about it."

Four Decades of Growth

JazzFest didn't start out as a destination for some of the world's greatest musicians. This year's lineup features bassist Christian McBrideBela Fleck and the Flecktones, and Tower of Power.

Pontremoli remembers it as a tiny festival geared toward up-and-coming jazz students.

"It was two days, and it was mostly educational. High school kids would come from all over the place to play for a couple national artists like Clark Terry or someone wonderful like that."

Now, JazzFest has events all year long, culminating with the summer destination festival at Playhouse Square.

"I wish we were called Jazz at Tri-C, like Jazz at Lincoln Center," Pontremoli said with a smile. 

Photo of Clark Terry
Credit Tri-C JazzFest
Trumpeter Clark Terry (left) and bassist and composer John Clayton (right) are just two performers in a long list of Tri-C JazzFests' greats, which include Miles Davis and Etta James.

Celebrating Cleveland's Musical History 

"This year there are some special one-off (concerts) that you'll never see again," Pontremoli said.

Christian McBride, Avery Sunshine, Nona Hendryx and Nigel Hall pay tribute to Cleveland soul legend Bobby Womack.

Cleveland's own jazz pianist and composer Tadd Dameron will be celebrated with his own tribute concert. 

"Tadd was an unsung musical hero," Pontremoli said. "And the people who loved Tadd were the musicans, the Dexter Gordons, the Benny Golsons, the Dizzies." 

"He lived a short and rather tragic life, but he wrote wonderful music," she added. 

But how do you honor one of Cleveland's unsung jazz greats? By assembling the best performers Pontremoli could find. 

"To me that's John Clayton and the Clayton Hamilton Jazz Orchestra and the best singer I could find, who I think is Dianne Reeves." 

Dr. John's Legacy

New Orleans music legend Dr. John passed away just a few weeks before the 40th Tri-C JazzFest. Pontremoli remembers his multiple performances at the festival as electric. 

"He always brought it. That guy brought that New Orleans, that soul, that deep down genuine grit that was so awesome," she said. 

As the festival continues to grow and new up-and-coming artists emerge and perform at Cleveland's premier musical event, Dr. John and the other legends who stepped into the JazzFest spotlight will be missed, but never forgotten.