JME Staff Picks | The Jazz at the 2024 Jacksonville Jazz Festival

This year's Jacksonville Jazz Festival treats jazzheads to a veritable feast of great jazz, with performances from (top from left) Nicholas Payton, Gregory Porter, Kenny Barron, (bottom from left) Lakecia Benjamin and the Baylor Project | Press photos courtesy of the artists websites (cropped)

A jazz festival is a curious proposition in 2024. This summer, for example, the admats for some of the country’s most notable jazz festivals give top billing to artists and bands that would seem to have little or nothing to do with America’s original artform. Celebrating its 70th year, Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival, lists British new wave singer-songwriter Elvis Costello and Chicago rapper Noname among its headliners (to be fair, Newport has arguably the best and most comprehensive jazz lineup of any festival this, or any, summer). Meanwhile, the poster for this summer’s New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival travels even further afield; with Foo Fighters, Chris Stapleton, The Killers, Greta Van Fleet and Neil Young, among others listed at the top of the bill before the first jazz artist, Trombone Shorty, gets a mention. 

The 2024 Jacksonville Jazz Festival – happening Memorial Day Weekend – is not unlike the most popular jazz fests. This year’s topline – Brian McKnight, Robin Thicke, Joss Stone –  includes artists who buttered their respective breads in the fields of R&B and pop; genres no doubt indebted to jazz but hardly the preferred flavors among jazzheads. 

But, similar to New Orleans’ and Newport’s festivals, if one looks below the fold, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s jazz bonafides are unimpeachable. From certifiable legends like Kenny Barron and stalwarts like Marcus and Jean Baylor, to jazz firebrands like Nicholas Payton and rising stars like Lakecia Benjamin, for those looking to dig deep on jazz and peer through a window into the future of the artform, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival abides. And unlike those other festivals, Jacksonville’s jazz fest is free to attend. 

For those interested in the shape of jazz to come, or just jazz-curious, the Jacksonville Music Experience team whipped up a guide to this year’s must-see jazz artists.–Matthew Shaw 


Local Standout

The Joshua Bowlus Quartet

4:15-5 p.m. | Daily’s Place Stage

If you follow Northeast Florida jazz, you have heard pianist Joshua Bowlus. Classically trained in his childhood, Bowlus earned a Louis Armstrong award during his teen years and studied at UNF under the mentorship of the great saxophonist Bunky Green. In addition to regular local gigs at Blue Jay Listening Room, Breezy Jazz Club and The Parlour, Bowlus has played at notable national festivals and is a veteran of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, returning this year and is a fitting representative of a local scene that is both vital, active and worth a deep listen.–Daniel A. Brown


South Florida Style

Michelle Manzo

4:30-5:30 | Met Park Stage

Born and raised in Miami, to Cuban and Dominican parents, Michelle Manzo was steeped in the diverse South Florida music scene, which featured everything from salsa to soca to Caribbean music, as well as the usual elements of classical, rock, folk and, of course, jazz. Following her matriculation at the Miami Dade College and the University of Miami School of Music, she moved to New York City and dove right into the deep end of the most densely competitive jazz scene on Earth, a setting in which she quickly thrived. Manzo has performed with legends like Les Paul, Barry Harris, Roy Hargrove and the Gipsy Kings. She’s also worked in film and TV, as well as narrating a musical audiobook based on the life of Celia Cruz. She’s played all over the US, and extensively in Asia, in settings ranging from duo sets to big band concerts. Amidst all this, she started a family and spent some time living in Montana, pre-pandemic. All those world travels brought her back, almost full-circle, to Florida, particularly Jacksonville, where she and her family relocated during the pandemic. She quickly established herself in the community, and in the local music scene. Her Friday festival set is preceded by a Wednesday gig at Prohibition Kitchen, backed by Duval’s own Angel Garcia; she’s also played there before with the illustrious Raisin Cake Orchestra.–Shelton Hull


Yet Another (Great) Duval Drummer 

Jamison Ross

5:30-6:30 p.m. | Daily’s Place Stage

The Duval scene is known for its preponderance of top-flight drummers, many of whom can be seen this weekend. Among the most prominent is Jamison Ross, born here in November 1987. The DASOTA alum got his BA in Jazz Studies at FSU, followed by Master of Music at the University of New Orleans, but he was already a known quantity going back to boyhood, as a star of the music documentary Chops in 2007, in addition to winning the prestigious Thelonious Monk drum competition in 2012. He’s released two albums under his own name on the Concord Jazz label, and featured on recordings by Carmen Lundy, Rex Gregory and the late great Dr. John (a jazz fest fave), but he’s probably best-known for his work with Snarky Puppy.–SH


A Prodigy With Deep Roots

Nicholas Payton 

6-7:15 p.m. | Met Park Stage

Nicholas Payton is New Orleans royalty, born there in September 1973. His father was the great jazz bassist Walter Payton Jr. (1942-2000), and the son was a trumpet prodigy whose first notes were blown at the tender age of four. His first two decades were spent in that cultural incubator, before he emerged as a star in his own right in the early 1990s. Touring with Marcus Roberts and Elvin Jones led to a much-heralded debut on Verve in 1995, followed soon after by the project that put him on the national map: Kansas City, a 1996 crime drama set in Kansas City during the era of Count Basie and Bennie Moten. Payton stood out in a crew that included Don Byron, John Handy, Olu Dara (father of Nas), James Carter, Geri Allen, Joshua Redman and David Murray. His 26th solo album is Drip, released on his own Paytone label in 2023, and he’s also appeared on albums by Allen Toussaint, Bill Charlap, Joanne Brackeen, Joe Henderson, JImmy Smith and the SFJAZZ Collective. He even played on Common’s brilliant Electric Circus album in 2002. He’s been nominated for five Grammys, winning two, so far.–SH

Living Legend

The Kenny Barron Trio

7-8 p.m. | Daily’s Place Stage

While still in his teens, pianist Kenny Barron had already gigged with saxophonist Jimmy Heath and multi-instrumentalist Yusef Lateef. It was an auspicious start for the Philly-born Barron, who hit the ground running early on, soon performing as a crucial side player for the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody and Lee Morgan, and was as adept in navigating post-bop changes as he was digging into modal exploration and soul-jazz vamps. A multiple Grammy nominee, American Jazz Hall of Famer and longtime jazz educator, the octogenarian jazz polymath has just released Beyond This Place, where he leads a multigenerational band through a collection of savvy and captivating performances.–DAB


Fusion Pioneer/Ace of Bass

Stanley Clarke Band

9:30-11 p.m. | Met Park Stage

Before this was such a thing as “bass guitar shred,” there was Stanley Clarke. Before he could legally sip a beer in the very jazz clubs where he was gigging, Clarke was performing (on double bass and electric bass guitar) as a side player for Tony Williams, Pharoah Sanders, Joe Henderson and Dexter Gordon. In the ‘70s with Return to Forever, Clarke helped co-create jazz fusion and revolutionized the bass guitar, playing fluid and complex lines that merged jazz, funk and rock, most notably with his tune “School Days,” which raised the bar for bass players. The multiple-Grammy winner is a festival favorite and returns to the Jacksonville Jazz Festival with his longtime band.–DAB



Contemporary Innovator

Lakecia Benjamin

6:15-7:15 p.m. | Met Park Stage

Like many public school kids, Lakecia Benjamin’s first instrument was the humble recorder. However, unlike most of her peers, the NYC-born Benjamin was soon unfurling fierce skills on the alto sax, performing the Latin genres that were the flavor of her Dominican-vibed neighborhood. Still in her early forties, Benjamin has packed a lot of history and accomplishments in a short time, playing with a diverse group of musicians, including Clark Terry, Alicia Keys, Stevie Wonder, Rashied Ali, Reggie Workman, Harry Belafonte and The Roots. Her latest album, Phoenix, is a good place to start to hear Benjamin’s inventive take on jazz, soul, funk and all points in between.–DAB


A Singer’s Singer

Gregory Porter 

7:45-9 p.m. | Met Park Stage

The current boss of the baritone (vocals not sax), the two-time Grammy winner Gregory Porter weaves the influences of his Bakersfield, CA upbringing – gospel at church, jazz records at home – on his own songs and standards. Last year, 10 years after NPR declared him “America’s next great jazz singer,” Porter released the holiday album Christmas Wish (which we picked as one of our best releases of 2023), and this year, his soul-groover “This World [Is Going Up in Flames]” is featured on the BBC series This Town.–MS


Extended Jam 

Jazz Jam Led by the John Lumpkin Trio  

9 p.m.-Midnight | West Club at Everbank Stadium

One of the Jacksonville Jazz Festival’s newest traditions, the jazz jam is a twist on a hallowed jazz tradition. Duval drummer (and promoter of the locally-based Jazz Discovery Series and Lounge Series at Josephine), John Lumpkin and his trio are joined by Savannah horn player Andrae Murchison and a rotating cast of local standouts, who’ll improvise into the wee hours of Sunday morning.–MS 



The Kids are (Better Than) Alright 

Jacksonville Arts and Music School (JAMS)

3:15-3:45 p.m. | Met Park Stage 

Under the tutelage of the Duval-bred, nationally-renowned jazz drummer John Lumpkin, students from the Springfield after-school creative arts development program, the Jacksonville Arts and Music School (AKA JAMS), are no doubt getting a world-class education. And these kids can flat out play!–MS 

Learn More 

New Age Virtuosity 

Keiko Matsui 

4:30-5:30 p.m. | Daily’s Place Stage

Japanese pianist and composer Keiko Matsui’s jazz bonafides are unquestionable. Over her long career she’s collaborated with a murderer’s row of jazz legends – Miles David, Hugh Masekela, Bob James – while pushing the genre in new (see: New Age) and interesting directions. Matsui concerts remain hot ticket items internationally. But you can see her for free on Sunday.–MS


Afro-Cuban Connoisseur 

Chucho Valdés Royal Quartet 

5:45-6:45 p.m. | Met Park Stage

Since the early ‘60s, pianist-bandleader-composer Chucho Valdés has been performing (and creating) Afro-Cuban jazz in real time. In the early ‘70s he formed the ensemble Irakere, pioneering a winning merger of Cuban music and jazz bebop. The multiple-Grammy Award winner has released dozens of solo albums, and at age 82, Valdés is also an ardent educator, teaching subsequent generations the traditions and inherent possibilities of jazz and Afro-Cuban music.–DAB


A Jazz Superduo

The Baylor Project

7:15-8:30 p.m. | Met Park Stage

A jazz supergroup of sorts, The Baylor Project features vocalist Jean Baylor (formerly of R&B group Zhané) and former Yellowjackets drummer Marcus Baylor. The band has garnered multiple Grammy Award nominations (seven in all) and snagged an NAACP Image Award on the strengths of their straightforward and soulful approach to jazz, which mixes torch-song balladry with dance-ready R&B. The Baylor Project has collaborated with notable heavyweights including Kenny Garret and Dianne Reeves; the duo’s live release, The Evening: Live at Apparatus, is a good starting point to hear the Baylors and their savvy band in full flight.–DAB


The Jacksonville Jazz Festival is held Memorial Day Weekend, Friday, May 24 through Sunday, May 26 at Daily’s Place and Metropolitan Park in Downtown Jacksonville. It’s free to attend. Visit here for more information.

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