A Home for Serious Music Makers!

Hot! Frank Malfitano

Founder & Executive Producer, Syracuse Jazz Fest


One of the largest and most important jazz festivals on the East coast of the United States is the Syracuse Jazz Fest, held in Syracuse, New York (USA). Now in its 33rd year, this annual mid-summer event, always features an outstanding and interesting eclectic mix of relevant jazz artists from around the world. The founder and Executive Producer for the festival is Dr. Frank Malfitano. In addition to his work in Central New York, Dr. Malfitano has also been actively involved on the U.S. national jazz scene for four decades, having also served as Director of the Detroit International Jazz Festival from 2000 to 2006. Frank was kind enough to take a few minutes to talk with us about the Syracuse Jazz Fest – its past, present and future.

How would you describe the original music scene in Central New York?
My friend, local music historian and archivist Ron Wray is currently about 4,000 pages into his tome on the History of Syracuse Music, and it’s a rich chronicle of everything that’s happened here musically for the past 60 years. For a market this size, Syracuse has definitely made its mark on the national music scene, but sadly it has increasingly become a market where originality and creativity on the part of resident musicians isn’t being nurtured, fostered and supporter as much as it should be. As a result you’ll find a plethora of cover bands and wedding bands, because that seems to be what venues and patrons want. Once upon a time, local radio stations, most notably WNDR and WOLF, played a major role in breaking and showcasing Syracuse-based artists. These days the mission of featuring locally-based artists is being shepherded almost singlehandedly by longtime radio jock Dave Frisina on his long running Syracuse Soundcheck show, but it’s niche-y. In the sixties, and the seventies, when legendary DJ’s “Big George” Plavacos and “Dandy Dan” Leonard were doing their thing, each station had a 50 share in the market so they were capable of generating major buzz about homegrown groups and artists. IT was the Golden Era for Syracuse music.

What about the jazz scene in particular?
There are a number of terrific jazz musicians that got their starts in Syracuse, people like Mark Murphy, Peanuts Hucko, Sal Nistico and Walt Weiskopf, but I’m not sure there’s much of a ‘jazz scene’ in Syracuse these days, and part of that is the lack of jazz clubs and venues that formerly served as incubators for local talent back in the day. Before ‘Urban Renewal’ decimated the inner-city’s once-vibrant African-American community, I can recall a time when we had a dozen great jazz clubs, places like Phoebe’s Harkay Lounge, Sid’s Hightower Lounge, the English Inn, The Jazz Corner, the Cover Club, Intrigue Room, the Club 800, the Penguin and the Embassy, and others on the outskirts like the Clef and the Coda.

You have a long and storied career, Frank. Can you give us a brief historical look into your background?
As far as my personal connection to the music goes, I started out as a student musician in fourth grade and played right up until college at SUNY Fredonia, where I majored in music for a time. I got hooked early on and became a fan and follower of live music in the mid fifties around the time I entered Junior High School, sneaking into as many clubs as I possibly could. But I saw Trane one night at the Club 800 and never played another note after that. My first gig as a presenter came in 1972 and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve been really fortunate in that the music has provided me with some memorable work opportunities in Manhattan, Los Angeles, Chicago, New Orleans, Washington DC, Detroit and here in my hometown of Syracuse for the past 42 years, 32 with Syracuse Jazz Fest. Along the way, I ran a jazz magazine in DC, a jazz club in Manhattan, a restored movie palace in Syracuse, and a great Music Hall and Jazz Festival in Detroit. But it all just kind of evolved organically as a result of my love for the music. I never really planned any of it.

What is a “Festival Promoter?”
I think the term ‘promoter’ over the years has had a bit of a sleazy connotation associated and attached to it, so I shy away from it. I think it’s a term some writers and others use with disdain to describe presenters who ‘dabble’ in attractions they don’t feel are ‘worthy’ of the term ‘Presenter.’ But presenting is what I do and what I’ve been doing for the past 4 decades. In terms of presenting, it’s not monosyllabic nor confined to festivals exclusively, so I’ve been involved with a variety of shows and venues over the years, including club events, concert halls, outdoor music festivals, special events, and music award shows. (I created the SAMMYS to honor Syracuse musicians.)

Tell me a little about the Syracuse Jazz Festival…how it got started and how it has grown?
The first editions of Jazz Fest were staged indoors in the early eighties at a huge Syracuse dance club called Suburban Park before we moved it outdoors to Song Mountain Ski Resort in 1983. It’s been outdoors ever since at a variety of venues that have included Long Branch Park, Clinton Square Park, Jamesville Beach Park and the Onondaga Community College (OCC) campus. It was a one-day paid admission festival at the onset and become a multiple day and multiple stage free admission festival in 1991 when I moved it to an underutilized site in downtown Syracuse that had previously been used only for Christmas tree lighting ceremonies. As soon as we became a free admission event, festival sponsorships and audience were each multiplied by a factor of 20 overnight.

What would you say are your major responsibilities when you put together a festival?
Everything. It’s really a soup-to-nuts situation. Grant writing. Programming. Fund raising. Media relations. Government relations. Site supervision. Vendor contracting. Website and social media development. Advertising, promotions and marketing. Artist relations. Sponsorship fulfillment. You name it, I’ve done it…and continue to do it. It’s very hands-on. And a huge part of it is attending other showcases, concerts and festivals throughout the year in the U.S., Canada and Europe to see what everyone else is doing in terms of programming, operations and logistics.

What would you say are your major challenges when you put together a festival?
Those are perhaps and probably too numerous to mention here, but the politics of it all becomes wearisome, along with the endless fund raising. At the risk of sounding whine-y, Jazz Fest is an event that has reached a level of major import for the Syracuse region, and as such probably shouldn’t have to be looking for money each and every year. Our future shouldn’t be in doubt, it should be guaranteed. That’s why I’m currently seeking three-year sponsorship commitments from everyone so we can get the festival to its historic 35th anniversary edition in 2017. With our internationally-recognized track record, unparalleled attendance, distinguished record of community service and engagement, award-winning educational outreach programs, and consistent level of artistic excellence, I think we’ve ‘earned’ the right to have sustainable and ongoing annual funding without having to turn over every rock in town every year. We shouldn’t be an annual question mark wondering if there’s be a Fest next year and the year after. And we should arguably receive annual funding that’s commensurate with our being the cultural season’s annual exclamation point.

At the end of the day, what, in your opinion, makes for a successful festival?
We have a number of major constituent groups dancing on the head of the Jazz Fest pin that all have to be accommodated and served on an annual basis. These include our media partners, corporate sponsors, public sector contributors, fans and audience members, and of course the musicians who create the music in the first place, which is where it all begins. We serve the music and the cats that create it for the people who dig it, first, foremost and always, but we also don’t forget to acknowledge the folks who pick up the tab and make it all possible. It’s a major juggling act, but that’s the fun of it.

How has the festival business changed over the years?
Fund raising has become a blood sport. Competition for dollars annually from various charities, chronic health care organizations, children’s hospitals, and countless other deserving charitable community based organizations has changed the landscape. It’s all about survival now. So a lot of time is spent on fund raising and politics that should be devoted to the music. It’s a major balancing act. Not for the faint of heart. Arts and cultural organizations that don’t operate like businesses will automatically go under. Arts and cultural organizations that don’t recognize shifts in trends and audience demos, and which fail to create new models to reinvent themselves will eventually sink rather than swim. It’s just a matter of time and the writing is on the wall. As a result, we’re going to see even more attrition in the years ahead.

Who are some of the folks you have enjoyed working with over the years?
If you mean Artists, it’s a long list. But it’s always exciting to work with the giants…people like Ray Charles, Aretha, BB King, Smokey, and of course Dave Brubeck.

Can you share details on one of your more memorable festival experiences?
Well, as far as other festivals go, there was Woodstock of course where I met Richie Havens, and the historic Ann Arbor Blues and Jazz Festivals in the early 70’s, produced by my friend and colleague, John Sinclair, where I met Dr. John, Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Bonnie Raitt, Sun Ra and Ray, forging relationships that would last for decades. As far as the Syracuse Jazz Fest goes, the first time I worked with Dizzy Gillespie and Miles stand out.

What made it so special?
That’s easy. It was Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis.

You are clearly a music man, Frank. When did you get hooked on jazz?
I think it kind of happened gradually and in stages. In high school in my senior year there was a • guy in marching band who turned me on to the traditional jazz of New Orleans in the band bus on the way back from a football game. His unbridled enthusiasm and excitement for jazz was contagious. Shortly thereafter, when I entered college in the early 60’s, they had a three-part jazz series on campus that featured Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, and The Jazz Brothers (Chuck and Gap Mangione, Steve Gadd and Sal Nistisco) and that pretty much clinched the deal. In the mid to late sixties when I was finishing up at Syracuse University they also had a great jazz series on campus in a legendary club called Jabberwocky. That’s when I met Chick Corea and saw Return to Forever, Weather Report and the Mahavishnu Orchestra for the first time, not to mention Charles Mingus, Gil Scott-Heron, Sonny Fortune and Miles. Over the years, primarily in the ’60’s, ’70’s and ’80’s, college campuses and university union college presenters used to play a major role in introducing students and community members to jazz and that’s why I’ve enjoying producing the AAC Legends of Jazz series at OCC for the past 6 seasons. It’s a treat to be able to present the greats and give younger audiences goers a taste of how great the music can be.

How about a few words of advice for the young upstart looking to put together a public music festival?
Be prepared for adversity and struggle and do every job imaginable so you can learn the business from the ground up. Do your homework. Study and know your market. Delve into the music’s history. See as much of it as you can. And learn from all of it. But the one piece of advice I’d always begin with is to always serve the music and the artists that create it. If you do, the rest should take care of itself. This is a biz filled with wannabes but artists can spot a phony a mile away. So always be the real deal. It’s all about the artists and really not about you. I think that’s a good place for me to begin and end. Thanks for the interview!

• 1978 to 1982, Syracuse producer for JAZZMOBILE

• 1982 to 2014, founder & executive producer, Syracuse Jazz Fest

• 1990 to 1996, executive director, Syracuse Area Landmark Theatre

• 1990 to 1996, founder SAMMY Awards; founder Syracuse Walk of Stars Awards

• 1997, executive co-producer, first-ever Jazz Awards at Lincoln Center

• 2000 to 2006, executive director, Detroit International Jazz Festival

• 2000 to 2006, artistic director, Detroit Music Hall Center for the Performing Arts

• 2006 to 2009, presenting manager, Stanley Center for the Arts

• 2001 to 2014, advisor to OCC’s Arts Across Campus (AAC) Syracuse, NY

• 2009 to 2014, artistic director, Arts Across Campus “Legends of Jazz Series”

• 2009 to 2012, producer, Dunbar Association’s Annual Jazz Christmas Concert

• 2001 to 2014, special consultant to the President of Onondaga Community College

• 2013 Syracuse New Times “Best of Syracuse” Award – Best Music Festival

• 2012 Syracuse New Times “Best of Syracuse” Award – Best Music Festival

• 2012 Named Honorary “Mother of Invention” by band’s remaining members

• 2012 Honorary Doctoral Music Degree, State University of New York (SUNY)

• 2011 Syracuse New Times “Best of Syracuse” Award – Best Free Music Event

• 2011 Syracuse New Times “Best of Syracuse” Award – Best Music Festival

• 2011 Prince Hall Free Masons / Order of Eastern Star Community Service Award

• 2010 Syracuse New Times “Best of Syracuse” Award – Best Music Festival

• 2009 Outstanding Community Service Award – Dunbar Association

• 2009 Emmy Award Nomination – “Jazz Fest Profiles” produced by Matt Mulcahy

• 2008 NAACP Community Service Award

• 2007 Syracuse Press Club Award – “ABC’s of Jazz Fest” Special produced by Tim Fox

• 2007 OCC Trustees Exemplary Service Award

• 2007 IAJE Special Recognition Award for 25 years of outstanding service to jazz education

• 2006 OCC “Alumni Faces” Honoree

• 2006 IAJE Outstanding Service to Jazz Education Award

• 2005 Detroit “Caddy” Award

• 2004 Syracuse Convention & Visitors Bureau Community Service Award

• 2001 New Orleans Mayoral Award – “Outstanding Contributions to New Orleans Music”

• 2000,1999 “Best Festival” Syracuse Area Music (SAMMY) Awards

• 1999 “Chancellor’s Award” – State University of New York (SUNY) Honor Roll

• 1999 IAJE “Award of Excellence”

• 1997 NYS Legislative Resolution recognizing festival’s 15 years as a world class jazz festival

• 1996 Syracuse Post-Standard Achievement Award

• 1996 Syracuse Area Music Awards (SAMMYS) Hall Of Fame Award

• 1995 Joseph Pietrefesa Foundation Memorial Award

• 1994 Syracuse Mayoral Special Recognition Award

• 1992 Cultural Resource Council’s (CRC) Service To The Arts Award

• 1992 Updowntowners Downtown Award of Excellence

• 1992 International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) Award Of Excellence

• 1983, 1987, 1989 Public Commendations from the Syracuse City Council and Onondaga County Legislature

“Thank you for the wonderful program…where musicians like myself are able to learn and watch great talented players.”

— D.D.