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Three-day, free jazz festival crams Hartford's Bushnell Park

By Scott Hayes

HARTFORD, CT -- The combination of near perfect summer weather and free jazz attracted record crowds to the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz, New England's largest free event, held in sprawling Bushnell Park, America's oldest public park tucked amidst the downtown cityscape and in the shadow of the statuesque State Capitol Building.

The 23rd edition of the Greater Hartford Festival of Jazz opened with a bang in the form of Friday night's headliner, venerable saxophonist David Sanborn, who turns 69 this month. Sanborn's blaring sax notes throughout his 90-minute plus closing set on the first day of the festival carried across the expanses of Bushnell Park to the crowded hillside lawn behind the adjacent State Capitol. Sanborn shared stories with the crowd while introducing some of his songs, including having performed at Woodstock with the Butterfield Blues Band prior to Jimi Hendrix taking the stage. He performed songs from his "Double Vision" recording, a song he wrote in 1978 entitled "Lisa", "I'm Comin' Home, Baby" and other tunes familiar enough to his followers to draw accolades from the crowd, which was festive and mixing with arts and crafts and food vendors throughout the night.

Cuban pianist Manuel Valera opened the musical portion of the program following the festival's opening ceremony, and event organizers estimated Friday night's crowd to be 30,000 and larger on Saturday, when music started at 4:30 p.m. with David Davis, followed by La Orquesta Espada, then Urban Jazz Coalition, the Jazz All Stars featuring Marion Meadows, Brian Simpson & Kim Waters, the Side Street dance crew and concluded with a late night set by Jus...Us, a celebration of "old school," Motown and R&B.

Sunday festival activities included a morning mass at Christ Church Cathedral that featured the Ross Tucker Hot Cat Dixieland Band, which performed a mix of spirituals, gospels and music by Duke Ellington. Back at the downtown park flutist Sherry Winston, Javon Jackson and Azar Lawrence shared their music with the closing day crowd from the west-side Pavilion Stage, with the sun setting on a successful festival that was started in 1992 and has been growing in popularity ever since.