“All of the most important American styles of music came out of the Southern U.S.”
That’s a bold statement by Savannah Music Festival Artistic Director Rob Gibson, but stepping back for a moment I realized it’s also a largely accurate one. And it’s a legacy that informs the spirit of the festival, a sublime 17-day blend of classical, jazz, world music, string band Americana, and the fringes of indie rock.
Gibson is proud of the Savannah Music Festival’s unique ability to run the stylistic gamut. “The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival is great, for example, but it has no classical,” he says. “Coachella and Bonnaroo focus on rock and hip hop.”
It’s hard to do justice to the breadth reflected across SMF’s 90 events held March 24 – April 9, but here are a few namedrops: Rhiannon Giddens. The Danish String Quartet. Malian singer Rokia Traore. The Dave Rawlings Machine. Georgia homeboys and homegirl the Drive-By Truckers and Sharon Jones. Waynesboro native Wycliffe Gordon leading a 19-piece jazz orchestra in his original score to accompany the 1920s silent film “Within Our Gates.”
Venues as Unique as the Performers
Gibson allows that his program sidesteps mainstream genres due to logistical constraints. “We’re doing a music fest in a town without a concert hall.” The SMF has turned that absence to their advantage, leveraging vintage movie theaters and other intimate venues. “One of my favorite locations, the Charles Morris Center, seats 300 people,” Gibson says. The largest theater, named for Savannah’s favorite son Johnny Mercer, holds 2,500 and will host a single show this fest, featuring alt-country icon Dwight Yoakam.
Gibson launched the Jazz at Lincoln Center program along with Wynton Marsalis in 1990, running it until he decided after 9/11 it was time to bring his two young children back home to the South. Although the festival existed as Savannah OnStage prior to his arrival, its growth during his tenure has been remarkable — last year 43,000 tickets were sold. Still, Gibson, whose Atlanta roots are clear in his accent, insists, “I’m less interested in growth than quality.” Curation is a key to the impressive roster. “I really just kind of book what I like. I think it was Duke Ellington who said, ‘There are only two kinds of music — I play the good kind.'”
The City Beyond the Music
While that good kind of music runs from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., there are plenty of other attractions to build into a day, as well. Gibson touts Savannah’s booming foodie scene, calling out in particular The Grey, the acclaimed restaurant housed in the former Greyhound bus terminal next door to the Ships of the Sea Museum, which doubles as a 500-capacity site for several concerts. The Telfair Museum is also within walking distance. (Our own Culinary Explorer Jennifer Booker tees up several other dining options, as well.) “We use historic Savannah as a backdrop. It’s a very walkable city. You really don’t have to rent a car at all, or you can park your own and leave it for the entire visit. You can always hop a pedi-cab if you get tired.”
Gibson proudly reports that the Savannah Music Festival generates over $1 million in local tax revenues annually. “Over 40 percent of our audience comes from over 200 miles away (Atlanta and Charlotte being the biggest hubs) and stay an average of 4.3 days. Savannah is also the fourth largest U.S. port, which brings a great international flavor,” leading to significant contingents from abroad, led by Germany and Canada.
Shakespeare at the Savannah Music Festival
One event that especially excites Gibson is tied to the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death. The British ensemble Passion & Practice will perform an adaption of “Pericles” in collaboration with the German chamber orchestra l’arte del mondo. “We have 12 British actors flying in just for this” one-time staging. The performance will be in Original Pronunciation (OP), which is easier to understand than the modern versions of Shakespeare, according to many experts.
While I can’t vouch for that last point, the international language of music over these 17 days requires no translation.
Glen Sarvady is Georgia’s official Music Explorer. He has lived in Atlanta for more than 20 years, and has written about music both locally and nationally for at least as long. More recently, he has written regularly for the music/arts publication Stomp & Stammer as well as GeorgiaMusic.org.