A community event that celebrates South Florida at the most beautiful time of the year is only part of the draw at the seventh annual South Beach Jazz Festival. On January 5-8 at multiple Miami Beach venues, the festival also puts music to work toward an urgent humanitarian goal: helping people with disabilities live their best lives.
Twenty years ago, festival founder R. David New contracted a rare disease that left him blind, deaf and paralyzed from the waist down, and placed him among the estimated 1 in 5 Americans who live with disabilities. A visual artist when he was stricken, New gradually regained his hearing and relearned how to walk. His eyesight never returned.
His experience led him to found a nonprofit, Power Access, to promote disability awareness and to help the disabled thrive. The South Beach Jazz Festival is Power Access’ signature event, and a way for the arts to embody greater inclusion and accessibility for the disabled. “The festival was born around David’s kitchen table,” Lori Bakkum, executive director of both the festival and the nonprofit said.
Through a mix of free and ticketed events, festival goers will get to see world-renowned jazz players, local greats and rising student performers. A major attraction is the Florida debut of the Big 3 Palladium Orchestra, the 17-piece revival ensemble celebrating three big-band Latin jazz titans who made New York’s Palladium (1927-1997) a legendary concert hall, with their sons carrying the music forward: Mario Grillo aka Machito Jr., Tito Rodriguez Jr. and Tito Puente Jr. This headlining event, dubbed Mambo Night, is 8pm Saturday, January 7 at the Miami Beach Bandshell.
A number of artists on the bill have disabilities themselves. They include members of the Miami Lighthouse for the Blind Student Ensemble, whose sighted and blind students join talents to play jazz, hip-hop, pop and rock at a free, all-day festival showcase, the Jazz For Tomorrow Student Stage, happening 10am-5pm Saturday at the Lincoln Road Oval. “We make sure to provide a platform where people of all abilities can perform at a world-class event,” Bakkum said. “We want people of every ability to be able to shine and have the platform to show their talent.”
“A student who is excelling in the arts has so many challenges anyway,” she noted. “It’s a life they choose because it’s a passion. We’re really excited to be taking our mission to the next level.”
The festival provides American Sign Language interpreters for the hearing-impaired. This year select performances will offer audio support: blind patrons and people with partial hearing can listen on headsets as facilitators deliver real-time spoken accounts of what’s happening on stage.
“Our crowds come because we offer something for everybody, and our audience comes from all ages, all sectors, all walks of life,” Bakkum said. “We have people dancing, and then older couples sit at tables and reminisce, and then there are young people that are learning about jazz as a really exciting music form.”
Here are a few more highlights
— Jamaica-born, Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Monty Alexander kicks off the festivities 8pm Thursday, January 5 at the Faena Theater. Bassist Luke Sellick and drummer Jason Brown help Alexander lay down his Caribbean-inflected jazz — a gorgeous blend showcased on his latest full-length release, “Love Notes.”
— Friday is Society Jazz Night at the Bass Museum, where guests can enjoy art and cocktails and the music of the South Florida Jazz Orchestra featuring Grammy-nominated jazz singer Nicole Henry. Power Access scholarship winner and multi-instrumentalist Eva Carizza also performs.
— At the aforementioned Jazz for Tomorrow stage on Saturday, six top South Florida student jazz organizations in all will show off their chops, among them the Broward College Jazz Combo and Young Musicians Unite Jazz Collective.
— Sunday belongs to the six acts playing the Power Access Main Stage along Lincoln Road 11am-8pm. The lineup includes jazz drummer Sammy Figueroa leading a tribute to the late pianist Cal Tjader — affectionately known as the “most successful non-Latin Latin jazz musician.” Miami jazz and blues serenader Wendy Pedersen also performs, and the festival wraps with the funky samba sounds of big band Gafieira Rio Miami.
This article originally appeared in PureHoney Magazine. Check them out here.