Ballard Jazz Fest stacks best local and international talent in one neighborhood
Chico Freeman

The Ballard Jazz Festival May 17-20 is popular for a reason. Every year, organizers make sure to shine a spotlight on local heroes and give them a chance to roll with the international big guns who visit from time to time.

This year, the four-day festival welcomes two-time Grammy®-nominated, New York City-based tenor saxophonist Chico Freeman (son of legendary Chicago NEA Jazz Master, the late Von Freeman) as a headliner on the Main Stage of the Nordic Heritage Museum in the quaint Seattle community of Ballard at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday (all ages).

Backing him are familiar Seattle favorites, drummer/festival co-founder Matt Jorgensen, bassist Evan Flory-Barnes and pianist George Colligan.

Jorgensen built up the Ballard Jazz Fest from the ground up with former drumming teacher, John Bishop.

Both are active working jazz musicians with an eye toward opening up venues for the best and brightest among them. Besides co-founding the jazz festival—heading into its 15th incarnation—the two collaborated to put the 20-year Origin Records on the map.

Jorgensen’s especially jazzed about the lineup in anticipation of two major creative milestones. “I'm excited about this year's Ballard Jazz Festival,” the artistic director told AXS earlier yesterday. “Not only is it the 15th year we've done the festival, but we are celebrating 20 years of Origin Records, so we are incorporating that into the Jazz Walk.”

The 15th annual Ballard Jazz Fest is also a time of firsts.

“This is the first time that legendary drummer Gary Hobbs is performing at the festival. New York City guitarist Brad Shepik, who grew up in the Seattle area and attended Cornish College of the Arts, is performing for the first time, and saxophonist Chico Freeman will be a highlight for me as well,” Jorgensen continued. “Plus the Jazz Walk is stacked with great talent. Vocalists Greta Matassa and Gail Pettis will be performing at different venues. Drummer Phil Parisot and pianist Bill Anschell will both be debuting music from their new CDs. Portland guitarist Dan Balmer and Tarik Abouzied’s Happy Orchestra will be performing at our two outdoor venues (Peddler Brewing Company and Pono Ranch) and closing the night, we have the Hammond B3 Soul Review (Pono Ranch), as well as my group, Matt Jorgensen +451 (at Conor Byrne), which hasn't performed for a few years. This is shaping up to be an exciting festival.”

The Ballard Jazz Fest isn’t without its critics. Many cite a kind of clique-ish nepotism at work in seeing the same names every year. Jorgensen addressed this issue in a May 12 interview with Seattle Times’ Alexa Peters.

“The festival is like a family at this point. Some people argue that every year they see Thomas Marriott or Greta Matassa or Gail Pettis, but by the same token—it’s our community. It’s the Seattle and Northwest regional jazz scene,” Jorgensen said.

While it may seem the festival shuns outsiders, others are thankful to be invited to the party, often for the first time. For musicians struggling to be heard, the Ballard Jazz Fest is not a dirty little secret, but a chance to make the rounds.

“The Ballard Jazz Festival was the first institution to take a chance on me as a new Seattle artist,” Bad Luck drummer Chris Icasiano told the Seattle Times writer. “They gave me license to experiment with new sounds and allowed me to bring something out of the ordinary to the festival audience.”

Many others, including the young, Golden Ear-nominated 200 Trio—who played last year, have benefited from that open-door policy. 200 Trio guitarist Cole Schuster returns for the Guitar Summit Thursday.

“That’s how it should work, that’s how you become ingrained in the scene. We’re trying to build community,” Jorgensen offered in the Seattle Times piece. “We aren’t doing this to have a huge festival that will compete with Earshot, Portland Jazz Festival or Vancouver Jazz Festival. We’re putting on the music we want to present, highlighting a few out-of-town and international artists like we do every year, and other than that, it’s a family.”

Check out the Ballard Jazz Fest website for a look at the rest of the artists.