The 11th annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival will feature dozens of performers, including Ranky Tanky, Franky Rodriguez, Orquesta and Brandee Younger.
Reminder Publishing submitted photo

SPRINGFIELD — Jazz, blues, hip hop and R&B artists from around Western Massachusetts and across the globe will bring their music to downtown Springfield this July for the 11th annual Springfield Jazz and Roots Festival.

The festival is presented by Blues To Green. The nonprofit was founded by Kristin Neville, wife of the late Charles Neville, who performed with his siblings as the famed R&B group, the Neville Brothers. After returning to her native Western Massachusetts, Neville began Blues To Green to use music from around the African diaspora to strengthen the local multicultural community and act as a call for action on racial, economic and climate justice.

“Being from a musical family,” Neville said she and her husband “felt we could draw people and support businesses with the festival and bring world class music for everyone to enjoy.”

The family-friendly festival “aims to unite people through the power of music, foster a sense of community, contribute to Springfield’s cultural and economic revitalization and promote social justice,” states the Blues to Green organization.

The festival is the organization’s flagship program, but it also brings musicians to area schools “for a residency” through the Legacy Education Project. The Arts for Racial & Climate Justice program blends music with advocacy, arts and film to highlight the intersection of racial and climate justice.

Neville explained that an integral part of the festival is education about the communities in the African diaspora that have produced the musical varieties on display. This year, the South Carolinian Gullah Ranky Tanky will present a demonstration on Friday, July 12, about food sovereignty and how it impacts their community. They will follow that up with a small performance. That evening, Western Massachusetts blues-rock songwriters LeFever will take the Charles Neville Main Stage in Stern Square, followed by Springfield-based band Malado and Misty Blues.

Saturday will feature an all-day lineup of musicians. Kicking off the day will be a New Orleans’ tradition, a Second-Line parade, stepping off from City Hall and ending at the main stage. The Dwonztet, an ensemble led by bassist Matt Dwonszyk, will play a blend of jazz, blues, R&B and hip hop. Ranky Tanky will return to the stage, joined by Oscar- and Grammy Award-winning vocalist Lisa Fischer. Rounding out the lineup are Nat Reeves Quartet, Alfredo Rodriguez Trio, a tribute to Sonny Stitt and harpist Brandee Younger.

Describing her music, Younger said, “It’s sort of some jazz, some R&B and some hip hop. My new album, ‘Brand New Life,’ pays homage to Dorothy Ashby.” The musician, who found her way to the harp through a family friend, said she was not a prodigy, but through “hard work and some natural talent” found a way to “make the harp fit into who I was. How to relate the instrument to my life and my heritage.”

Over on the Urban Roots Stage, alongside Tower Square Park, Mexican singer, percussionist and DJ Pahua will perform, as will Samirah Evans & Her Handsome Devils, Franky Rodriguez Orquestra and songwriter, bassist and vocalist Heshima Moja. Ron Smith & the Soulful Jazz Trio will entertain with jazz and instrumental pop, while Springfield siblings T Swan & Talynt will exhibit their style of hip hop. DJ Chico, DJ Why Not and Breakin’ Battle will be featured on the dance stage and there will be a drum group from the Community Music School of Springfield.

The musicians at the festival represents different genres of music, from traditional and modern jazz, to soul, neo-soul, Latin, Mexican, Afro-Cuban and hip hop. Some artists defy labels, all together. The musicians are also a mix of emerging artists and what Neville called, “more seasoned performers.”

When traveling to jazz festivals around the world, Neville said, “I take note of who is performing and who I can see performing in Springfield.” She, co-organizer Evan Plotkin and a committee find and invite musicians to perform at the festival.

Reflecting on some of her favorite musicians to perform at the festival over the years, Neville cited Daymé Arocena, Martha Redbone and Taj Mahal, but also said, “The Second Line parade led by students from the community music school and then seeing them perform on stage — that was the highlight for me last year.”
The musicians are just as excited about the lineup as Neville is. When Younger learned Reeves would also be playing the festival she gasped, “He was my teacher.” Studying music at the Hartt School at the University of Hartford, she said, “Springfield was up the block,” giving her a fondness for Western Massachusetts musicians. Laughing while reviewing the lineup, she added, “These are my people.”

Surrounding the stages are arts activities, presentations and workshops, local pop-up craft vendors and food and drinks, including a Jazz Fest beer from White Lion Brewing, the proceeds of which help sponsor the festival.

The festival is free to attend, but Neville said donations are appreciated, “so we can keep doing this.” The organization is offering a VIP pass at a certain donation level that comes with benefits like prime seating for the main stage, access to indoor bathrooms and an air-conditioned space. The organization is funded through grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, state and local government support and business sponsorships.

More than half of the roughly 10,000 people who visit the festival each year are from Springfield and Western Massachusetts, but Neville said people come from across the country.

“Jazz fans and festival fans like to experience different places and appreciate high caliber music,” Neville said.
Younger said she enjoys playing at jazz festivals. She said, “The energy at festivals — the audience is there to have a good time.” For those who are new to the harp as an instrument in jazz and R&B, she said, “I hope they get a different perspective on the instrument. It’s not like a solo harp recital where you’re going to fall asleep. There’ll be some toe tapping.”

To register for the festival, or learn more about Blues To Green, visit bluestogreen.org.