The Sacramento Music Festival’s organizers are singing an upbeat tune as a weekend of music descends on Old Sacramento. Advance ticket sales are up 7 percent compared to 2015. The overall crowd from Friday through Monday is expected to rise to 30,000 attendees, an uptick from the estimated 25,000 who attended the multi-genre music festival last year.
Toes will tap to the likes of Lee Rocker, former bassist for the Stray Cats, swing kingpins Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the smooth soft-rock stylings of Pablo Cruise. More than 100 other acts, including youth bands, Latin rock – and yes, the traditional Dixieland jazz that was long the core of the festival – will be heard on 15 stages.
The festival, however, remains in transition and reconstruction. The event has endured as a Sacramento tradition on Memorial Day weekend since the early 1970s, when it debuted as the Sacramento Jazz Jubilee and accented Dixieland and banjo-happy jazz styles. At its peak in the mid-1980s, the festival drew more than 85,000 and included performers in Old Sacramento, Cal Expo and other locations around the city. Attendance declined steadily starting in the 1990s as its core audience aged and the overall appetite for jazz withered.
Now, jazz bands account for about 30 percent of the event, which rebranded itself as the Sacramento Music Festival in 2011. The event is organized by the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, but for all its musical heritage, it’s especially tricky to base a music festival solely on jazz. According to the 2015 Nielsen Year End Music report, jazz accounted for just 1.3 percent of all music sales in the United States. Only children’s music, which ranked at the bottom of the list, fared worse.
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The festival ultimately had to change its tune: Adapt to the times, or die.
“It has been challenging,” said Tom Duff, executive director of the society. “(Many of) the people who came to see traditional jazz and Dixieland are no longer around or can’t get to the festival. We heard, ‘That’s my grandfather’s music,’ and attendance was dropping off so we had to do something.”
The musical variety has increased since changing to its current genre-less moniker. Alternative rock, country and Latin rock are now fair game for a festival where dancers with parasols and washboard rhythm sections were a common sight.
That switch wasn’t necessarily a slam dunk. Organizers reported a drop in attendance and a $132,424 deficit at the 2012 Sacramento Music Festival.
The Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau signed a three-year commitment with the jazz society in 2013 to run all marketing for the festival, solicit sponsors and book the headlining bands. The 2013 version posted a $42,000 profit, but the event faced an uncertain future when the society laid off its paid staff in 2014 and scrambled to raise $80,000 to keep its organization afloat. That goal was met but required scaling down the event.
Now, all Sacramento Music Festival events are held in Old Sacramento.
“We moved back to our roots, and it was good for us to consolidate,” Duff said. “We have music closer to the people who want it and we don’t have to shuttle people from different parts of the city.”
The jazz society is now managing the festival primarily on its own. Though the visitors bureau is no longer a key player, the organization contributed $5,000 in sponsorship money for the 2016 festival.
“We’re still involved on a consultant level and we want them to be wildly successful,” said Mike Testa, chief operating officer of the Sacramento Convention & Visitors Bureau. “It’s just a different (role) from the past three years.”
Duff and the society are still looking to fine-tune the festival and expand its appeal. In terms of demographics, Duff said ticket holders are primarily Caucasian, in their mid-40s, and evenly split between men and women. He also noted that Latinos represent a significant portion of the crowd, and past appearances from Latin rockers Los Lobos and Malo were especially well-attended.
Plenty of musical variety can be found with this year’s lineup, including tributes to the Rolling Stones (Unauthorized Rolling Stones), Huey Lewis (Super Huey), Mick Martin and the Blues Rockers and two different bands covering Santana tunes.
“The change (in programming) has been good for us,” Duff said. “If we just went back to jazz, we wouldn’t exist for very long. For the long term, we would like to get more money in the bank and continue to have good music that appeals to people.”
SACRAMENTO MUSIC FESTIVAL
WITH: Pablo Cruise, Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Mumbo Gumbo, Lee Rocker and dozens of other acts.
WHEN: Friday, May 27, through Monday, May 30
WHERE: Various Old Sacramento venues
COST: $49 Friday, $55 Saturday and Sunday, $25 Monday; four-day pass for all events is $125.
INFORMATION: 916-444-2004, www.sacmusicfest.com
5 MUSIC PICKS
The Sacramento Music Festival showcases more than 100 performers, from marching bands to Santana cover bands. Here are five must-see sets:
▪ Dixie Company Jazz Band: This is your band for a proper old-school Dixieland experience. (6:30 p.m. Saturday and 1 p.m. Sunday at Firehouse Courtyard)
▪ Pablo Cruise: Nothing like a little yacht rock to keep things smooth in Sacramento. (8:30 p.m. Saturday at Turntable on the Green)
▪ Lee Rocker: The former Stray Cat member still wields a mighty double bass sound and buckwild rockabilly tunes. (6:30 p.m. Sunday at Turntable on the Green)
▪ Big Bad Voodoo Daddy: Dust off your chain wallet and best lines from “Swingers” and get to jumping and jiving. (8:30 p.m. Sunday at Turntable on the Green)
▪ California Repercussions: Watch for this marching band that specializes in brassy covers of Top 40 tunes and more to roam the Old Sacramento streets all weekend.