Violinist Chelsey Green and her band The Green Project play her virtuosic and accessible blend of R&B, classical, and jazz at festivals, clubs, and with symphonies around the country. State Department tours have taken her to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, and Haiti. Yet despite teaching at the Berklee College of Music for the last five years, she has rarely performed in the Boston area.
That makes her a perfect Sunday headliner for this year’s Cambridge Jazz Festival, which kicks off with a gala at MIT July 29 before continuing with two free days of music at Danehy Park.
“Often Boston has musicians who travel all over the world, but we don’t see them play here that often,” says drummer and educator Ron Savage, who cofounded and produces the festival with Larry Ward, a former Cambridge city councilor. Likewise, the Saturday spotlight on the Afro-Caribbean jazz connection is headlined by Eguie Castrillo, a Boston-based bandleader and master of the timbales. On Sunday, Savage’s trio will feature saxophonist Bill Pierce and guitarist Bobby Broom. Among the other artists appearing are Guillermo Nojechowicz’s Latin-jazz combo EL ECO and Gabrielle Goodman, who’ll perform a tribute to Aretha Franklin.
The last live edition of the festival, in 2019, had one day of music and one day devoted to a jazz and gender symposium held in conjunction with the Berklee Institute of Jazz and Gender Justice, led by drummer Terri Lyne Carrington. Savage says that while the Cambridge Jazz Foundation, the festival’s nonprofit parent, will continue its educational work, “with so much that we’ve been through since the last festival, we wanted to just give people a chance to get together as a community and listen to live music. And we are still putting an emphasis on gender diversity. Four out of the nine acts will be female-led.”
The festival had a seemingly inauspicious start in 2014. “We chose the last weekend of July because that historically has had the least amount of rainfall in Massachusetts,” says Ward. It poured, but Ward says some 2,500 people still turned out. In recent years the crowds have grown fivefold.
Savage attributes the festival’s success to “our three pillars: Provide a diverse and world-class musical experience, build strength in our organization, and honor all commitments.”
“I’ve played at hundreds of festivals as a professional musician, and they are run with varying degrees of accountability to the artists,” he says, laughing. “But we don’t want to try to get our artists on the cheap. So if it takes more elbow grease to raise the funds to treat them fairly, that’s what we do. And knowing that it is free and open to everyone and family-friendly also appeals to a lot of musicians. No one wants to be the musician who only plays to the $100 ticket crowd.”
Green is also playing another free Boston event that strives to be inclusive, BAMS Fest, in Franklin Park on June 11. Knowing that plenty of R&B fans will be at BAMS Fest, which will be headlined this year by ‘90s R&B trio SWV, Green plans on coming up with different setlists. “I already know we’re going to be changing each show, just to make it feel at home in both spaces,” she says. “People might see a photo of me looking dainty and holding a violin and think it’ll be an unassuming, classical performance. I tell them to expect the unexpected.”
Thanks to a scheduling quirk, this year’s Cambridge Jazz Festival falls on the same weekend as the famed Newport Jazz Festival. But a conflict that might doom other New England jazz events isn’t fazing the organizers of the Cambridge fest, who speak with equal excitement about inviting music therapists to conduct a session for neurodiverse children as they do about the Grammy and jazz magazine poll winners who grace the stage.
“Plenty of our artists have also played Newport, including myself,” says Savage. “But our festival is for the entire jazz audience. If you have a blanket and you can get to the park, you can enjoy it. And maybe people will come to our festival, and want more, and go to Newport in the future, which is great. But the reason we’ve survived is that we’ve kept it simple: This was music that came from the people, and our job is to make it accessible to the people.”
CAMBRIDGE JAZZ FESTIVAL
At Danehy Park, 99 Sherman St., Cambridge, July 30-31, noon to 6 p.m. Free (paid seats also available). www.cambridgejazzfoundation.org