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
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.
Celebrating Cleveland's Musical History
"This year there are some special one-off (concerts) that you'll never see again," Pontremoli said.
Cleveland's own jazz pianist and composer Tadd Dameron will be celebrated with his own tribute concert.
"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.