It was a slow evolution to become “The Birthplace of America's Music.” It began generations ago, when the blues – a truly indigenous Southern art form – sprung up as the only viable communication in the cotton fields of the antebellum South. From there, it made its way downriver to New Orleans, where it intertwined with ragtime in the early 20th century and became jazz. This evolution continued through the decades and some could say, still continues today.
As one of the more important river towns during the period when this music took giant cultural leaps, the eclectic, storied and complex City of Natchez may lay claim to its share of influence as well.
The 27th season of the Natchez Festival of Music, held at various venues across Natchez May 6-27, will this year pay tribute to Mississippi’s bicentennial and acknowledge the range of music heard in every nook and cranny, and within earshot of every demographic in the state.
The 2017 Festival, headed by Artistic Director Dr. Jay Dean, will honor the theme of “By Way of the River: A Salute to the Mississippi Bicentennial” as it celebrates 200 years of sonic expression of grief, joy, beauty, individuality, creativity, and community felt and shared throughout the state and over generations.
The music born in Mississippi, the blues, will be celebrated with the first performance of the Fest, “The Best of the Mississippi Blues II.” The concert, held May 6, kicks things off with charismatic vocalist and guitarist Vasti Jackson, who will present selections from blues pioneers who would eventually influence the development of rock ‘n’ roll and later continue to inspire the bulk of rock and pop performers of today. Jackson will perform music of B.B. King, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, and other bluesmen who have had profound affect on Mississippi, and in turn, on the world.
On May 9, “Rossini, Puccini and Martinis” switches the Fest’s gears to bring audiences a taste of opera as “the very best singers in the nation perform their most exciting arias” in an elegant setting at Waverly Plantation. This program also will be repeated at different locations on May 16 and 23.
May 10 quickens the pace a bit as “Rockin’ on the River” takes place at Bowie’s Tavern, a Natchez landmark. Starring Brint Anderson and his band, the evening will be a festive celebration of blues and rock by a Natchez native son.
On May 11, the amps are turned off and things again take a classical turn as virtuoso pianist Jonathan Levin tickles the ivories with the spirit of Eastern Europe. His program, “Revolution, Romanticism and Rachmaninoff,” will include selections by Tchaikovsky, Khachaturian, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin and Russian-influenced pieces that Levin himself composed.
The program of May 12, “That Sensational Sondheim,” focuses on the work of beloved multiple Tony Award-winning composer Stephen Sondheim, best known for his popular Broadway musicals including “West Side Story,” “Sweeney Todd,” and more. The revue, held at Natchez' famed The Towers, will include favorite selections from the Sondheim songbook.
A decidedly soulful groove takes over on May 13 as “From Mississippi to Motown” highlights the Detroit sound, which may ultimately be traced back to its roots in the music of Mississippi. The performance will include numbers popularized by Motown greats such as Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson and The Supremes, and will also focus on native Mississippians who added to the Motown legacy.
Another installment of “Rockin’ on the River” at Bowie’s features Ben Lewis, Natchez singer, songwriter and guitarist, who will perform on May 17.
On May 18, “Mississippi Concert Hall: A Tribute to Mississippi’s Greatest Classical Composers and Performers” features vocal and instrumental music by Mississippi composers, including work by luminaries such as Leontyne Price, John Alexander, William Brown and more.
May 19 offers “The First Lady of Song: A Tribute to the Ella Fitzgerald Centennial,” where Lynn Beach Smith and the Larry Pinella Quintet present songs popularized by the legendary jazz vocalist, Ella Fitzgerald.
On May 20, the Festival’s full “Broadway” performance of 2017, “Camelot,” transports audiences via music to the magical world of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.
May 24 offers the last installment of “Rockin’ on the River” when Natchez-based band Speakeasy takes to the stage at Bowie’s Tavern.
On May 25, Alvin Shelby and the Natchez Community Choir lifts voices – and spirits – with a performance of “Highway to Heaven,” an evening of moving religious and inspirational music.
Native son of Mississippi, Elvis Presley, is honored in the May 26 event “The King of Rock and Roll: An Evening of Elvis Presley.” As one of the most influential artists in American music history, the songbook of The King will be presented by top-rated Elvis tribute artist, Victor Trevino.
“The Barber of Seville” closes out the Festival when it brings musical comedy to the stage of the Natchez Performing Arts Center on May 27. This comedic opera by Gioachino Rossini will delight the audience as it has for generations.
In addition to the adult roster, the Festival also offers free children’s events on Saturday mornings. On May 6, youngsters are treated to a musical stage performance of “Little Red Riding Hood.” May 13 brings a unique “Musical Instrument petting Zoo,” described as “an interactive, hands-on musical experience for kids.” Songs from “Fairy Tale Musical Movies” will be enjoyed on May 20 with the program “Fairy Tales in Music.” On the last Saturday of the Festival, children will explore another art form in “Painting with Emotion,” where children will draw and paint pictures that are inspired by music.
For more details on the Natchez Festival of music performances, artist bios, locations and purchase of either individual event tickets or ticket packages, visit Natchezfestivalofmusic.com or call (888) 718.4253.