Ira Sullivan, Jane Bunnett playing first Miami Downtown Jazz Fest

Correspondent

The South Florida jazz scene has been enjoying more than just a moment in the sun. Trumpeter Brian Lynch, who teaches at the Frost School of Music at the University of Miami, was nominated for a 2017 Grammy Award. New York-based pianist Emmet Cohen, who graduated from UM and was a finalist at the Thelonious Monk International Piano Competition in 2011, has just released a recording with legendary jazz drummer Jimmy Cobb. And saxophonist Jason Hainsworth, who directs the Jazz Studies program at Broward College, has earned space on the JazzWeek charts with his second album, “Third Ward Stories.”

These three standouts are among the powerful lineup of artists who will be performing at the inaugural edition of the Miami Downtown Jazz Festival, taking place Feb. 24-25 on various downtown stages. With the exception of the Feb. 25 Bayfront Park Amphitheater concert, all shows are free. Further elevating South Florida’s credibility as a jazz powerhouse, a crew from “Jazz Night in America,” a national radio program hosted by jazz bassist Christian McBride, will be recording music and interviewing artists for a future broadcast.

While not every festival artist has a South Florida pedigree, most have at least a connection to the area, personally, professionally or spiritually. New York-based saxophonist and flutist Paquito D’Rivera, a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master, has received a hero’s welcome on local stages since defecting from his native Cuba in 1981.

“Paquito’s almost a South Florida resident,” says WDNA-FM general manager Maggie Pelleya, whose Miami-based jazz station is hosting the event. Pelleya, who last year received a Jazz Heroes Award from the Jazz Journalists Association, also mentions D’Rivera’s bandmates for his performance — violinist Federico Britos and flutist Nestor Torres — both of whom call South Florida home. “We just wanted to highlight the incredible amount of talent that’s down here,” she says.

That talent also encompasses stalwarts such as saxophonist, flutist and trumpeter Ira Sullivan, who played with Charlie Parker and Red Rodney before moving to South Florida from Chicago in the 1960s; Trinidadian steel-pan virtuoso Othello Molineaux, whose chiming tropical tones set a high standard in the contemporary-jazz world alongside Monty Alexander and Jaco Pastorius; Nuyorican percussionist Sammy Figueroa, whose versatility and acumen put him on the speed dial of artists from David Bowie to Sonny Rollins; and versatile violinist and vocalist Nicole Yarling, who toured with Jimmy Buffett, recorded with jazz great Joe Williams and received a 2015 JJA Jazz Heroes Award for her educational efforts.

More recent additions to the South Florida jazz community, bluesy baritone vocalist Kevin Mahogany and Cuban-born drummer Dafnis Prieto — both of whom teach at UM — will also headline stages. And then, there are the incredibly skilled musicians who back the headliners, including brothers Mike and Nicky Orta, on piano and bass, respectively; pianist Mike Gerber; and drummer John Yarling, all mainstays on the South Florida jazz scene for decades.

Miami’s reputation as the Gateway to the Americas strongly flavors the festival’s content, which sways to a variety of Latin rhythms. In addition to disparate sets by D’Rivera, Figueroa, Prieto and Lynch — whose Grammy-nominated new album, “Madera Latino” (it lost to Chucho Valdes’ “Tribute to Irakere”), is a sizzling Latin take on the music of trumpeter Woody Shaw — the festival will also present Canadian saxophonist and flutist Jane Bunnett’s all-Cubana ensemble Maqueque.

Pelleya says she was a bit concerned that the government’s tightening visa restrictions might affect the Cuban musicians, who will be making their South Florida debut. But the band has been touring the U.S. behind their new recording, “Oddara,” which seamlessly blends traditional and contemporary Latin jazz, and have thus far not encountered any problems.

The sound of the flute provides a silvery thread connecting many of the festival’s artists and tying them to superstar Hubert Laws, another NEA Jazz Master. During his 50-plus-year career, Laws has proven a major contemporary-jazz-world influence, particularly through his soulful 1970s work alongside the likes of Ron Carter, Freddie Hubbard and George Benson. Laws anchors the multiartist Saturday-night Bayfront concert, the only ticketed event of the festival.

The concept of a largely free festival was important to Pelleya and her WDNA colleagues, who won a $75,000 grant from the Knight Foundation that required them to match the funds dollar for dollar. And the six different venues, from the Olympia Theater lobby to Miami Dade College to the HistoryMiami Museum, also further their mission to introduce audiences to the streets beyond the AmericanAirlines Arena and the Arsht Center.

“Since we’ve been doing concerts for so many years at the station, we’ve been thinking about doing a festival for quite a while,” Pelleya says. “And when the Knight Arts Challenge came up, we proposed the idea, and they liked it. So we set about thinking, dreaming, about what we would like to do, and we came up with this idea of bringing people downtown.”

The Miami Downtown Jazz Festival takes place noon-9 p.m. Friday, Feb. 24 at various venues. Admission is free. The festival continues 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 at Bayfront Park, 301 N. Biscayne Blvd. Admission is $30-$100 through Ticketmaster. For tickets and a complete schedule, call 305-662-8889 or go to MiamiDowntownJazzFestival.org.

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