Long Beach Jazz Festival ready to rip at Rainbow Lagoon

Whether it’s cool jazz on a steamy August day or sizzling Latin salsa to get your feet moving; whether it’s festival favorite Poncho Sanchez or Arturo Sandoval laying down a Latin vibe or smooth tones from Norman Brown to Eric Benet to Brian Culbertson, the Long Beach Jazz Festival has got it covered.

From Friday through Sunday, Aug. 9 -11, the 32nd edition of the long-running event will shake the grounds around Rainbow Lagoon with its eclectic sampling of all things jazz.

Since its founding by Al Williams, the Long Beach Jazz Festival, with more than 20 hours of music on each of two stages, has strived to be two things: a platform of straight-forward mainstream jazz with established stars and an incubator for new and emerging artists and forms. As a result, at the same time multi-Grammy winner trumpet player and composer Arturo Sandoval, mentored by Dizzy Gillespie, is carving it up on the main stage, young artists like Romel Veal or Sulpacio Jones may be testing their mettle on the second stage. Or a hidden gem like veteran sideman Gary Metz will be blowing sax from his debut solo album.

“We keep that situation going,” Williams said of the second stage. “We’re getting more diversity.”

While soul, neo-soul and other forms grown from jazz roots can be found, Williams says the Long Beach festival continues to feature the traditional vibe of what has been called “America’s classical music.”

“Most quote ‘jazz festivals’ don’t always have the music that brought us here,” said Williams. “There are a lot of great young players, but they’re not being taught [the classics]. I think that’s a lack of history being taught.”

In an effort to address that, the festival played host to its second celebrity/charity golf tournament this year benefiting the Inner City Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles, providing musical teaching and performance opportunities for disadvantaged children.

Each year the Long Beach Jazz Festival draws luminaries from jazz, fusion, R&B and soul; performers and styles have ranged from Stanley Clarke to David Sanborn to Earl Klugh, from Gladys Knight to Spyro Gyra.

This year, Sandoval is among the brighter lights. A 10-time Grammy winner and 19-time nominee, he defected from his native Cuba in 1990 while touring with Gillespie. His life story was made into a movie, “For Love or Country,” starring Andy Garcia. His gigs have ranged from playing at the White House to the 1995 halftime show at the Super Bowl

“He’s crazy versatile,” Williams said. “He’s a hell of a trumpet player.”

Arturo Sandoval. Photo courtesy Arturo Sandoval/Facebook.

Every year, Long Beach has to battle other big name shows and venues to pull in top acts, but Williams and his daughter, Kimberly Benoit, who took over production of the festival with Rainbow Promotions in 2014, have managed to make it work.

Jazz Festivals have been a summer staple since the early days of the form—a “jazz festival” was noted in 1930 in LA’s Shrine Auditorium and 1938’s outdoor “Carnival of Swing” in New York, featured Count Basie, Duke Ellington and about 20 bands. The Newport Jazz Festival sprouted on the East Coast in 1954 and Monterey launched its version in 1958; both have been going strong ever since.

Nowadays there are hundreds of such events and, with its deep well of local talent, Long Beach more than holds its own.

One of the local products is Williams himself who has been a central figure in the Long Beach jazz scene since he opened Jazz Safari near the Queen Mary in 1978.

Williams and his Jazz Society band continue to play annually at the festival. The band includes vocalists Alexis Joi and Barbara Morrison. This year the group is doing a tribute to jazz vocalist Nancy Wilson, who died in December. Wilson recorded more than 70 albums in a 50-year career that included three Grammys and hit singles “(You Don’t Know) How Glad I Am,” and “Guess Who I Saw Today.”

Williams knew Wilson well and said, “I’m really excited about the show. The greats, when they pass on, are forgotten. We’re not going to let that happen.”

Another local star and go-to for the festival is the irrepressible Poncho Sanchez who has been with the festival from the start, performing at all but two of them. Sanchez first met Williams while playing at the Jazz Safari. The two have been friends ever since.

Sanchez says through the years he would often close down the Long Beach festival, then keep on jamming after hours at Birdland West, the famed jazz club Williams opened in downtown Long Beach after closing Jazz Safari.

Wherever the music takes him, Sanchez always carves out time for Long Beach.

“It’s home,” he says. “I moved to Norwalk when I was four years old. This is my area, man. This is where I hang out. It’s always a good place to go to work and play.”

A nine-time Grammy nominee, two-time winner and lifetime achievement recipient from the Latin Grammys, Sanchez has recorded 26 albums over his 32 years with Concord records. That constant pace of putting out records has been vital for the festival circuit, he says.

“It keeps you in the modern eye,” he said. “People want you in festivals because you keep making music. Outdoor festivals are always fun and everyone’s having a good time. How could you be depressed at a jazz festival? We feed off the energy and we fill it up. I like playing, man.”

The three-day Long Beach Jazz Festival features 15 acts on the main stage and 10 on the second stage. Other featured performers include jazz guitarist Norman Brown, Eric Benet and Brian Culbertson. The event opens Friday, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., gates open at 5 p.m.; Saturday and Sunday 1 p.m. to 10 p.m., gates open at 11 a.m.

Rainbow Lagoon Park is located at E Shoreline Dr. Tickets start at $60 for general admission. For more information or tickets, click here.

Support our journalism.

Hyperlocal news is an essential force in our democracy, but it costs money to keep an organization like this one alive, and we can’t rely on advertiser support alone. That’s why we’re asking readers like you to support our independent, fact-based journalism. We know you like it—that’s why you’re here. Help us keep hyperlocal news alive in Long Beach.