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The Whaling City Sounds Off for JazzFest on June 15

Eighth annual New Bedford (Mass.) JazzFest part of ongoing "cultural renaissance"

The Southcoast Jazz Orchestra performs at last year's New Bedford JazzFest.
The New Bedford JazzFest is set for June 15.

While it’s best known as the gritty seaport where Ahab set sail on his voyage of revenge in Moby Dick, New Bedford, Mass. has developed some cultural chops these past two decades, and jazz is playing a part. Now in its eighth year, the New Bedford JazzFest is set for June 15 from 2 – 7 p.m. on Pier 3 of the city’s working waterfront. 

It’s not a large festival by any means, founder Eric Paradis notes. The festival’s inaugural year attracted roughly 250 people. Since then it’s continued to grow, however, and Paradis expects to see between 800 and 1,000 people on Saturday.

Forty musicians will perform at the festival, including opening act The Scruffy Aristocrats, a Providence, R.I.-based six-piece brass band. Paradis said the band’s energy and playfulness will be on display not only in the festival’s main tent, but also in the city’s cobblestoned streets as they wander through downtown.

“They’re buskers and they have a lot of fun,” Paradis says. “I caught them in Providence playing the I Dream of Jeannie theme song. You couldn’t help but smile.”

Other performers include regional acts such as the Southcoast Jazz Orchestra, Alan Bernstein and the New Bop Revue Featuring Marcell Gauvin, and closing act Grupo Sazon. The latter band, also Providence-based, specializes in Latin jazz with some merengue and salsa influences.

“Every year I find jazz acts that are lively and get people up and moving,” Paradis says.

What you won’t see at the New Bedford JazzFest is something that fans of larger festivals have bemoaned in recent years: a proliferation of artists who make music that can’t be classified as jazz.  “Our philosophy from the beginning has been to keep it a jazz festival,” Paradis notes, adding that the event helps bolster the ongoing cultural rebirth that the city has been experiencing as of late.

Since its inception, JazzFest proceeds have supported Your Theatre Inc., of which Paradis is a member. The non-profit, volunteer-driven community theater group recently purchased a historic church in downtown New Bedford, where it will continue to stage performances. Currently, the church is undergoing a restoration to become the Steeple Playhouse. When finished, the space will be a multi-use cultural hub in the heart of the Whaling City. 

The new playhouse is one of many strides made in the past 20 years on a slew of arts-focused events, starting with the launch of AHA!. A free cultural night held monthly, AHA! brings together city museums, merchants, and restaurants for a variety of arts and culture programs. 

That, coupled with the addition of a satellite campus from the nearby University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, which brings students downtown, has injected new energy into the city.

Paradis says that he hopes people are encouraged to come check out the festival and the burgeoning arts scene: “So many organizations that started at the grassroots level have helped bolster this new feeling that New Bedford has come a long way, that downtown New Bedford is a safe, beautiful place to be. It’s been going through a cultural renaissance—there’s no doubt about that.”

Tickets for New Bedford JazzFest cost $25. Purchase online or reserve by calling the Your Theatre box office at 508-993-0772. Children 15 and younger attend free when accompanied by a ticketed adult.

Free parking for the festival is located at the Whalestooth Lot, located at 532 Acushnet Ave. A shuttle will take visitors to the tent on Pier 3.

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Matthew Bernat

Matthew Bernat is an associate editor at Boston-based Madavor Media, publisher of JazzTimes and many other titles catering to a diverse audience of passionate enthusiasts. He is a journalist with a decade of experience reporting in New England.