Hampton Jazz Festival looks forward to a banner year
Barring a last-minute meltdown, this year's Hampton Jazz Festival will go down as one of the biggest in nearly a decade.

One has to look back to 2002 to find so many advance tickets sold to this annual set of jazz and R&B concerts at Hampton Coliseum.

This year's festival, set for June 24-26, is expected to draw nearly 29,400 attendees. The Saturday, June 25, portion of the event — which will feature performances by Charlie Wilson, KEM and Jonathan Butler — sold out the first week tickets were on sale. The other two days of the festival — featuring music from Chaka Khan, Boyz II Men and Frankie Beverly — have sold well, too.

Organizers are predicting three solid sold-out shows.

So why, with the economy still sputtering, are music fans flocking to Hampton?

"We're living through some turbulent times in a lot of ways," said Boney James, a popular saxophone player who will help kick off the festival June 24. "Music does become more important to people at times like that. I hope that's what it is."

Nationally, CD sales are in freefall and the music industry, as a whole, is struggling, James said. Some cultural observers theorize that music is becoming less important to Americans. "But I never really bought that," James said. "Hopefully this is just an affirmation that music has a really important role in the lives of humans."

He's glad to see positive signs emerging at the Hampton Jazz Festival, an event he's played many times and where he's been welcomed with unbridled enthusiasm.

"I have nothing but happy memories of the jazz festival," the 49-year-old sax man said. "It's got a lot of energy ... It's such a big venue, and always an incredible lineup of artists. We're just excited to be coming back … Hampton is definitely a special place."

Joe Tsao, director of Hampton Coliseum and a primary organizer of the event, said this year's jazz festival achieves an attractive mix of musical elements: smooth jazz, modern R&B and classic, funky soul. "I think it's a very balanced lineup," Tsao said. "It hits the sweet spot.

"Consistency is another factor," Tsao said. "People have learned over time to expect a certain quality and value to be associated with this festival. People have had good experiences repeatedly over time."

That wasn't always true. Hampton Jazz Festival endured a troubled period starting in the late 1990s. In 1999, the festival lost money and entertained little more than 15,000 people over three days. The downward trend ended in 2001. In recent years, the event has been steadily profitable and total attendance has hovered around 25,000.

Presented through a partnership among the city of Hampton, Hampton University and The Santangelo Group — a concert promotion company based in Cleveland — the jazz festival has been a fixture of the local entertainment scene for 43 years.

For now, the tradition looks as strong as ever. Tsao credits the talent coming to town.

Boyz II Men and Charlie Wilson have created strong word-of-mouth buzz, Tsao said. Frankie Beverly is a bankable favorite with the festival's audience. Also, a number of fresh new faces promise to give audiences a pleasant surprise.

R&B singer Anthony Hamilton, who headlines the Friday, June 24 show, is poised to make his jazz festival debut. The North Carolina-born vocalist draws inspiration from legendary soul artists such as Bill Withers and Bobby Womack, and, at age 40, he's able to straddle the line between the hip-hop generation and the era of classic R&B.

"I'm excited," Hamilton said last week. "I've heard of the festival for years and I've just been waiting on my opportunity to get there. I'm going to try to tear up my flip-flops on stage. I want to be asked to come back."

He said he's not intimidated by the long history of the festival and the long list of great singers who have performed there: Aretha Franklin, Al Green, Ray Charles, Gladys Knight.

"Not at all, I have got it in me, that spirit," Hamilton said. "I'm going to have some new fans when I leave … Even if I'm not singing, I'm going to be moving my leg on stage. They'll be like 'I like the way he moves his leg!'