Claes Brondal is a drummer. He is also president of Hamptons Jazz Fest and the director and co-founder of the Jam Session, which produces a weekly podcast, and for several years offered Thursday night jazz events at the former Bay Burger restaurant in Sag Harbor.
This week, Brondal reflected on the inaugural Hamptons Jazz Fest, which ran July through September, and presented more than 50 free concerts at venues large and small from Westhampton Beach to Montauk. The Hamptons Jazz Fest ends the season with one final, special concert at Southampton Arts Center on October 8, featuring saxophonist Ravi Coltrane and singer Michelle Coltrane (children of legendary musician John Coltrane) along with Joe Lovano, Brandee Younger and friends in support of The John and Alice Coltrane Home, which is being renovated as a museum.
Q: How would you say the first Hamptons Jazz Fest went?
I think it went surprisingly and extra well. We don’t charge for concerts, so we measure our success based on how many people show up. It was very successful. The musicianship was extraordinary and we managed to secure world class Newport jazz-level musicians across the board. Our medium to big events were full attendance. You never know who will show up, because there’s no registration, but I was happily surprised.
Q: Who were your audiences? Did you recognize them from earlier events at Bay Burger?
From the Jam Sessions, we had a fan base and they were in attendance, but they only amounted to 20 percent of the audience. There were a lot of new faces. I’m always curious and I ask people, ‘How did you hear about the concert? Why are you here tonight? What prompted you to come and where are you from?’ There were people I had never seen before.
Q: Why do you think that is? Is it because so many people were out here this summer?
I think it’s a combination of things. The festival was a collaboration with many other organizations and we tapped into their network, so I guess it’s sort of exponential.
Q: The concerts were presented over three months from Westhampton Beach to Montauk, that’s a huge area.
Even if we had not had good attendance, we pulled off a good promotional campaign for next year, and brought in a lot of people. We marked a big territory. It’s unusual to have a jazz festival go on three and a half months.
Q: That’s a really long time to be presenting concerts.
I was concerned about our endurance. It’s a little like holding your breath. Kelly Dodds [of the Sag Harbor American Music Festival] holds her breath for three to five days, but three months? We still have no staff, no volunteers — it’s three or four people doing everything. We’re a nonprofit, but the Hamptons Jazz Fest has no brick and mortar building, so every time we do something it has to be a collaboration. And since we’re not a production company, it had to be at venues with a preexisting infrastructure to support a concert.
Q: It’s really ambitious. How did the jazz festival come about in the first place?
It goes back to COVID. The festival started because of COVID as a celebration of coming out of it and diving back into the community with live music and social interaction — celebrating being human. In April when we were trying to figure out how to do this, many venues and organizations were hesitant to commit to anything because of the rules. And also, would the audience have PTSD? Would they want to socialize or would they be afraid of gathering? We started working with organizing venues we had previously worked with and it was spread out for a couple reasons — fear of commitment and we got a late start. Planning a jazz festival in April for a July start is ambitious.
Q: But on the bright side, because of the pandemic, I imagine you were able to book a lot of musicians that in a normal year would be touring and unavailable.
Yes, the musicians were available and easier to get. We had an 18-piece big band outside at SAC and an 18-piece Latin jazz band from Spanish Harlem. To coordinate 18 working musicians and 18 lives on a normal day is difficult, but we had some leeway. One of our headliners needed a hotel room on a Saturday night in August. We found out late that we had to find him a place or else he couldn’t perform. The cheapest hotel I found was $999. But The Church in Sag Harbor stepped in — they have an artist residency space and helped us out. Otherwise, I don’t know what we would’ve done. There were so many things evolving and changing and so many different moving parts.
Q: So the last event of the festival is this Friday, October 8, at SAC. Can you tell me how it came about and who it will benefit?
It came out of the blue. A couple nights ago, we thought the concert on September 30 at The Church would be the last one. But there’s a few degrees of separation. [Festival producer] Joel Chriss is good friends with Ashley Kahn, a journalist and music historian affiliated with the John Coltrane home in Dix Hills. That home received a Suffolk County grant and they’re restoring the house to turn it into a museum. It’s where John and Alice Coltrane raised Michelle and Ravi, who will perform in their memory. It’ll be a concert and a Q&A.
Q: This concert will be indoors at SAC, right?
Yes, it will be inside with vaccination and face masks required. I want to give a shout out to SAC. They were such great partners in crime, helping us produce concerts at the last minute. In mid-August, we had to find someone who could accommodate us and they stepped in to help.
Q: Any big surprises with this first Hamptons Jazz Fest and is there anything that you might do differently next year?
I think I want to get an earlier start preparing for next year. When opportunity knocks on the door, you can take it or not. It was presented as a question in the spring — ‘Can you guys present a world-class jazz fest? Yes or no?’ Next year, instead of eight weeks, I will now have 7 months to plan. We also have to get out there and do some fundraising.
Q: So the season’s over and it’s now fall. Can we expect any music from your organization in the coming months?
We’re planning to partner with Christ Episcopal Church [in Sag Harbor] and play music upstairs in the parish hall every Sunday night. There’s a grand piano, but no infrastructure, so we have to provide everything. Hopefully we will be starting that in November.
Hamptons Jazz Fest’s “Concert Tribute to John and Alice Coltrane” will feature an all-star ensemble with music and a discussion centered on the progress and mission of the Coltrane Home, where John Coltrane composed “A Love Supreme” in the upstairs bedroom and Alice Coltrane recorded a string of groundbreaking records in the studio she built in the basement of the home. The event is Friday, October 8, from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center, 25 Jobs Lane Southampton. Following a panel discussion moderated by Coltrane scholar and music historian Ashley Kahn, saxophonists Ravi Coltrane and Joe Lavano, vocalist Michelle Coltrane and harpist Brandee Younger will perform. Doors open at 6 p.m. For more information, visit hamptonsjazzfest.com.