By Emily J. Weitz
Sag Harbor is a small village, and come September it gets a whole lot smaller. But the Sag Harbor Music Festival, now in its seventh year, has managed to create a cultural oasis that is usually reserved for bustling metropolises. Top-tier musicians from across the country come, not to fill a stadium, because that would be impossible in this tiny town. These musicians come to sing to the rafters in the Old Whalers Church, and the soul they bring to this community makes it feel even more intimate, because the shared experience knits us all closer together.
Jon Cleary, who won the Grammy in 2016 for Best Regional Roots Album, has been playing the soul-soaked bars of New Orleans for more than 30 years. As he gears up to play the 1844 Greek Revival Old Whalers Church, there will be no shortage of spirit.
“Some rooms have more character than others,” said Cleary. “I like a room that’s had a lot of soul and a lot of spirit. It’s absorbed into the fabric of the building. You can close your eyes when you’re playing, and it’s like a battery you can draw your energy from.”
Not only does the Old Whalers Church draw from the generations past — the Sag Harbor whaling captains and their families who once worshipped there — it also has the more recent residue of the headliners of previous Sag Harbor American Music Festivals, and that list is world-class. From John Hiatt to Joan Osborne to the Fairfield Four, legends across the genres have swooned to a packed house at the Old Whalers Church year after year.
“America’s a big country with a long history,” said Cleary, “and there are a lot of people making all kinds of different music. But there’s nothing as uniquely American as jazz.”
Jazz can’t be summed up in a word, and New Orleans jazz is as varied and nuanced as the people who play it. While Cleary is billed as a funk musician, he wouldn’t be so quick to try to simplify his sound.
“Jazz grew out of the folk music of the city of New Orleans,” he said. “The music I play is New Orleans based, rooted in rhythm and blues and funk.”
As the Sag Harbor American Music Festival strives to expose audiences to the widest possible range of music that can fit under the umbrella of American music, a Grammy-award winning jazz and funk artist from New Orleans is a particularly strong pick. Because not only is New Orleans a big piece of the puzzle of American music: it also holds influences from many other aspects of American music. New Orleans is a melting pot.
“It’s a meeting ground of the Caribbean and the United States,” said Cleary, “and the music played there comes out sounding different. It’s a sound that informs the way music is played everywhere else in the States.”
Kelly Dodds, co-founder of the Sag Harbor American Music Festival, understands the subtleties of jazz, and how difficult it is to fit any great musician into a neat box.
“We could do an entire festival about jazz and the genres within jazz music,” she said.
But they continue to work to bring funk, bluegrass, rap, punk, and rock and roll into the lineup as well.
“Through the years,” said Dodds, “we are trying to bring people that you wouldn’t typically find out here. It’s an education.”
Perhaps the most important thing the Sag Harbor American Music Festival does for Sag Harbor, though, is it reconnects people through music.
“It’s about the sense of community it brings to us,” said Dodds. “During the music festival, when everyone is out on the street walking from act to act, smiling and waving and catching up after the summer, it’s a chance to take a breath and enjoy. To just enjoy the village together, to appreciate what we work so hard for.”
She also sees it as a way to show visitors what Sag Harbor can be.
“The festival shines a spotlight on the cultural depths of Sag Harbor,” she said. “We’ve got spirit. We’ve got soul. This brings that out in people.”
The Sag Harbor American Music Festival takes place from September 21-24. Jon Cleary will perform at the Old Whalers Church on Friday, September 22 at 8pm. For more information or tickets, go to www.sagharbormusic.org.