The Sacramento Music Festival wound down on a sweltering Monday afternoon, with the sounds of trumpets and blues guitar licks resonating around Old Sacramento. The four-day event featured a jukebox of music styles, including classic rock cover bands, Cajun and the Dixieland jazz on which the festival was first built. But no matter what genre had the crowds tapping their toes, the overall festival could be summed up with the phrase “steady as she goes.”
According to Tom Duff, executive director of the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, the festival’s chief organizer, attendance remained flat compared with 2015. Paid attendance was estimated to be 22,000 for the event, which kicked off at 11 a.m. Friday and wrapped up late Monday afternoon. Combined with complimentary tickets for musicians, sponsors and others, the overall attendance was approximately 27,000 – about the same as 2015.
Organizers were initially hopeful that combined attendance would reach 30,000, based on advance ticket sales, which were up 7 percent compared with the previous year.
“It’s right about the same as last year – not up, not down,” Duff said. “I’m excited that we are the same. It hasn’t decreased. Certainly, everything takes money, and unfortunately we’ve had some struggles with sponsorships and city support. If someone came in with $200,000, we’d have some of the stuff they have at BottleRock (a music festival in Napa).”
Walking around Old Sacramento on Monday afternoon was a whole different tune compared with the festival in its heyday. The event debuted as the Dixieland-themed Sacramento Jazz Jubilee in the early 1970s and at its peak drew combined crowds of more than 85,000 to Old Sacramento and other venues around the city.
Attendance started to fall steadily starting in the 1990s, due to a declining interest in traditional jazz and the aging of its core audience. In 2011, the festival was renamed the Sacramento Music Festival and added a broader lineup to reach potential new attendees.
Unlike the wall-to-wall crowds on Front Street in Old Sacramento during the mid-1980s, foot traffic was especially light Monday afternoon. The pounding of drums from the Freeway Gardens stage echoed throughout Old Sacramento’s pedestrian tunnel that links to K Street, but plenty of empty seats were found.
Bill Keliher, general manager of Old Sacramento’s Ten22 restaurant, said business was up about 10 percent compared with a typical weekend.
“It’s been OK,” Keliher said. “I was hoping for more, but I’m not sure word is really getting out (about the festival). Business has been close to about what it was last year.”
But even before the last notes were played Monday, organizers were already looking ahead to next year’s festival. Duff said the Sacramento Music Festival is confirmed for Memorial Day weekend of 2017.
Ultimately, the Sacramento Music Festival will need to reach a new generation of music lovers for long-term sustainability, especially if jazz remains a key part of its programming. Some of that hope for the future could be found at the Pony Express Rider stage, a platform for the festival’s youth bands. Suddenly Pineapples, a group from Mission Avenue Open Elementary in Carmichael, was deep in the groove with old-school jazz tunes.
Trumpeter Lucas Saylors said he enjoys the freedom of playing jazz in a world of tightly programmed drum machines.
“I like the feel of jazz,” Saylors said. “You can tap your foot to it. You get to improvise. Louis Armstrong is my favorite trumpet player, and I like that Dixieland-ish kind of sound.”