10 Acts to Catch at the 35th San Francisco Jazz Festival

Don’t miss The Suffers, Lizz Wright, Cory Henry, and others.

San Francisco has a rich jazz history. A surge in blue-collar jobs on the docks in the 1940s saw a massive migration of African-Americans to San Francisco and, by 1950, more than 40,000 people lived in Fogtown, the Fillmore district that became known as the “Harlem of the West.”

The first jazz clubs opened in the Tenderloin and North Beach in the late 1940s and, by the mid-‘50s, more budding bar owners had followed suit, opening venues with names like Club Alabam, the New Orleans Swing Club, Elsie’s Breakfast Club, Harold Blackshear’s Cafe Society, The Favor, and the Havana Club.

Since 1983, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has been a highlight of the city’s musical calendar, a celebration of the many branches of the genre ranging from avant-garde to traditional. This year’s event includes more than 40 concerts spread over two weeks.

Here are 10 artists you should definitely check out.

The 35th San Francisco Jazz Festival takes place from June 6 to 18. 

Jacob Collier

It’s been a wild couple of years for English singer, multi-instrumentalist, and inventor Jacob Collier. Through self-made, split-screen Youtube videos of him playing every instrument for songs such as Stevie Wonder’s “Don’t You Worry ‘Bout a Thing,” he was signed to Quincy Jones’ management company and, towards the end of last year, he released his debut album, In My Room. The man’s a bonafide phenomenon, a 22-year-old musical tour de force. He’s also part mad-scientist, designing and creating tools and devices that allow him to play multiple instruments on stage. See for yourself how he does it.

Lizz Wright

As much as jazz is about instrumentation, it’s also about the voice(s) behind the music. Lizz Wright first got into jazz by singing Billie Holiday songs before she discovered that she’s capable of penning her own sumptuous tunes. She’s released four albums on Verve Records, and her most recent full-length effort, Freedom & Surrender, is her debut for Concord. Wright’s voice is strong and smooth, yet husky, and it’s perhaps best on display in “Nearness of You.”

The Suffers

The Houston 10-piece The Suffers have appeared on The Daily Show, Jimmy Kimmel Live, and The Late Show with David Letterman, among other national shows, but there’s no chance anyone is getting sick of this charming outfit anytime soon. Keyboardist Patrick Kelly and bassist Adam Castaneda formed the band six years ago, and it has made steady progress ever since. The self-titled debut album was released last year, and the gloriously multicultural Suffers will be playing a bunch of those tunes during their Jazz Fest performance.

Jake Shimabukuro

There’s only so much you can do with a ukulele, right? WRONG! Jake Shimabukuro is redefining what it means to be a ukulele player to the point that people are actually calling him “the Jimi Hendrix” of the instrument.Just listen to his interpretation of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and it’s clear that the ukulele is more emotive than most people give it credit for.

Cory Henry

Cory Henry can almost make his keyboard talk. Seriously, it feels as if the instrument is having a conversation with the super-charming and charismatic Grammy-winning member of Snarky Puppy. Henry will be at Jazz Fest with his band the Funk Apostles, playing a rich blend of gospel, R&B, funk, and jazz.

Derrick Hodge

Philadelphia’s Derrick Hodge is known to hardcore jazz-heads as the longtime bassist for the Robert Glasper Experiment. But he’s also a renowned solo artist, working with Mulgrew Miller, Terence Blanchard, Common, Mos Def, Timbaland, and Maxwell. From that mini-resume, it should be clear that Hodge is able to adapt his skills across genres, and it’s his ability to find the middle-ground where R&B and modern jazz meet that makes him so sought-after. Hodge — who worked on the soundtrack to Spike Lee’s When the Levees Broke and A Take of God’s Will — released his solo debut, Live Today, in 2013. His sophomore effort, The Second, just came out, so expect a lot of tunes from it. This will be an instrumental set, but Hodge’s sound is accessible.


Some of the members of Bokanté are also in Snarky Puppy, but this is an altogether different outfit from the Texas jazz ensemble. The name of the band translates to “exchange” in Antillean Creole, which is spoken on singer Malika Tirolien’s home island of Guadeloupe in the Caribbean. The band’s multicultural approach is passionate, with lyrical themes that tackle topics like racism, heartbreak,triumph, joy, and protest. Songs such as “Jou Ké Ouvè” are hair-raisingly epic and joyous.

Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra

To really experience a jazz festival, you just have to catch a show by a traditional jazz orchestra. No contemporary frills or R&B/hip-hop twists, just the real, old-school deal. The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra is co-led by saxophonist Jeff Clayton, bassist John Clayton, and drummer Jeff Hamilton, musicians that, between them, have played with the likes of Count Basie, Stevie Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, Frank Sinatra, and Woody Herman. These are super-talented instrumentalists, capable of playing just about anything. But as a trio, they keep it smooth and traditional, and that works perfectly.

Jon Jangtet

One of the Bay Area’s own, Jon Jangtet is presenting his “Can’t Stop Crying For America: Black Lives Matter” project at this year’s festival. As the name suggests, this is an important piece of work that Jangtet has completed alongside collaborator and poet Amanda Kemp. Organized into vignettes, each song is named after a victim of violence, like Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, and Michael Brown. Jangtet’s set isn’t going to be your average jazz toe-tapper — this one will be saying something.

Marquis Hill Blacktet

Marquis Hill was the winner of the 2014 Thelonious Monk International Trumpet Competition a very prestigious prize in the jazz world. Since then, the Chicagoan has established himself as one to watch in the modern jazz world. The man can wrench a remarkable amount of passion, energy, and warmth out of his trumpet and, while the music of his Blacktet isn’t for every jazz newbie, it’s intricacies are accessible to the casual fan.


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