New York’s Winter Jazzfest Celebrates 20 Years And Shabaka Hutchings, Max Roach, Ryuichi Sakamoto & More

Taking Up Residence: Shabaka Hutchings, who will play six shows, including with Esperanza Spalding, Saul Williams, Jason Moran and Joe Lovano at the 2024 Winter Jazzfest, is also the fest’s Artist In Residence. Here, he’s performing with The Comet is Coming at Somerset House on July 14, 2023, in London. Photo by Burak Cingi / Redferns

On Jan. 10, New York City’s Winter Jazzfest will kick off its 20th season and for nine days feature some of the most impressive and innovative programming of any fest anywhere. This includes: 2024 artist-in-residence (and Pollstar cover artist) Shabaka Hutchings, performing half a dozen times and on bills with Gary Bartz, Joe Lovano, Jason Moran, Carlos Niño, Saul Williams and Esperanza Spalding among others; a tribute to drummer legend Max Roach, who would have turned 100 this year; a night honoring the late great composer Ryuichi Sakamoto; a celebration of Sun Ra’s poetry; a tribute to The East, a pioneering Black community arts center in Brooklyn founded in 1969 and where The Last Poets, Betty Carter, Lee Morgan and Pharoah Sanders among others performed; and the fest’s signature marathon nights Friday, Jan. 12 in Manhattan and Saturday, Jan. 13 in Brooklyn.

“Twenty years ago, when it started as one night with 18 groups on three stages at the old Knitting Factory, I didn’t dream what it would turn into,” says Brice Rosenbloom, Winter Jazzfest’s founder and producer. Now the festival will have shows at 25 different venues in Manhattan and Brooklyn featuring 140-plus groups and more than 15,000 projected attendees.

Winter Jazzfest has always run concurrently with the annual Association of Performing Arts Professionals (APAP) Conference, which attracts domestic and international talent buyers from PACs, theaters, clubs and other venues to New York City in January. WJF’s stature has grown so much, however, that it now attracts fans who attend independently of APAP at a time of year that is relatively fallow.

“It’s an opportunity because it’s not super crowded,” Rosenbloom says. “It’s crowded for industry folks, but for general ticket buyers, it’s a slow week. It’s Martin Luther King weekend and just two weeks after New Year’s. There’s not a tremendous amount happening and it’s not as crowded as spring, summer or fall, so we found this great opportunity to plant our flag and have grown modestly larger each year.” 

IMG 0527
The Iceman Cometh: Brice Rosenbloom is the founder and producer of NYC”s Winter Jazzfest, which this year is celebrating its 20th anniversary. (Photo WJF)

After three years, Winter Jazzfest transcended its single-venue roots, moving to the West Village’s (Le) Poisson Rouge, which opened in 2008, and expanded to other nearby venues including the Bitter End and Zinc Bar. New venues were steadily added including Nublu, the Mercury Lounge, Bowery Ballroom, City Winery and others. In 2020, WJF expanded into Brooklyn, which proved key. 

“I always knew musicians lived and performed in Brooklyn,” Rosenbloom says, “so there was a realization that for my colleagues coming all the way to New York from Europe, South America, Asia or wherever, for us not to show off the flourishing music scene in Brooklyn would have been a lost opportunity.” 

Though Pharoah Sanders, Marshall Allen, Terence Blanchard, Geri Allen, Dee Dee Bridgewater, Gary Bartz, Christian McBride, Nicholas Payton and other vets have played WJF, Rosenbloom is most proud of providing a platform for once up-and-coming acts like Robert Glasper, Kamasi Washington, Esperanza Spalding, Jon Batiste, Samara Joy, Thundercat, Nubya Garcia, Makaya McCraven, Shabaka, the late Jaimie Branch, Angel Bat Dawid, DOMi and JD Beck among many others.  

Rosenbloom is similarly proud of the fest’s special programming he and his collaborators have put together. He credits his late friend Meghan Stabile of Revive Da Live with co-creating a celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bartz’s album Another Earth in 2019. In the fest’s 10th year, he and Henry Threadgill put together a fitting tribute to Butch Morris who had recently died. And at Town Hall, WJF commemorated Blue Note’s very first recording with Jason Moran and Robert Glasper performing the work of boogie-woogie pianists Albert Ammons and Meade “Lux” Lewis.

Because Winter Jazzfest is itself part of a larger community, the event has used its platform to support social justice causes including #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, sustainability and other causes, especially in the last decade where Rosenbloom could see changes happening. 

“There were so many projects and social justice messages, we knew we needed to shine a spotlight on as many of these projects as possible. I recognized as a curator or culture promoter, I had more responsibility than I originally imagined and needed to use my position to affect and influence people’s experience to hopefully lead towards a more positive community.” 

The music promoter recalled a 2018 panel on gender equity with activist and professor Angela Davis and musicians Esperanza Spalding, Terri Lyne Carrington and Vijay Iyer. “Angela Davis asked why has jazz been so ‘ass backwards’ and not a leader on social justice issues like it was in the 60s when it was the music of change with artists like Nina Simone, Max Roach and others. Her comments stirred the pot and every year since, we’ve made gender equity a major priority with advocacy group Keychange, which encourages gender equity in programming so at least half the groups we’re presenting have female identifying or non-binary musicians represented. We pledged that in 2018 and we’re happy to have one of the most gender-balanced festivals in the world. It’s important for us to create a festival that reflects the community and reflects where we want the community to be.”  

Like other fests across the globe, the pandemic wreaked havoc on Winter Jazzfest even as recently as two years ago. “January 2022 was a terrible year,” Rosenbloom says. “I was home in Louisville for Thanksgiving watching the news with my parents, which reported a new strain called Omicron was detected in South Africa. I thought in the back of my head, ‘Uh oh. If it’s in South Africa now, it’s gonna be in New York in a few weeks.’ And sure enough, by mid-December, we were all talking about it. A couple of days before Christmas, we had to make the decision to cancel or postpone and move the majority of the festival online. We basically transitioned to being a content production company where we put 30-plus groups in studios, venues or their own home studios and captured live content of them playing. Then we added that into six nights of multi-hour programming with radio hosts introducing artists between sets. We were able to use [Shuttered Venues Operators Grant] money to pay everyone and were just happy we could support artists and create continuity with our audience and continue to have a festival that year.”

With the size and complexity of Winter Jazzfest, and its sometimes small or non-existent margins, the question is why Rosenbloom continues to do it. “It’s a very good question. Obviously, this is not a big money maker for anyone. I do it because I love it and I get so much out of it and because I know I’m creating community that’s absolutely needed. One thing we’ve noticed in the jazz scene in New York is that there’s less clubs and less scenes. There used to be multiple scenes on any given night happening. You could go see an experimental set at Tonic or go to Smalls or the Knitting Factory or something uptown or hip-hop jazz thing downtown. And now you don’t see that. What we do at Winter Jazzfest every year in January is replicate the multitudes and the ways the music has become expansive.”