Laz Jazz Fest ‘24: An interview with co-producer David Lazaroff

w/ Sun Ra Arkestra, Brothers Lazaroff ft. Anita Jackson, Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos, DJ Boogieman, David Y Los Diablos (David Gomez), Mesonjixx, Jawwaad Spann and the Vintage Society ft. Dee Jazz, K Kudda Muzic, Helena Bishop, and Heal Center For the Arts | 06.29.24, 4:00pm | The Big Top, 3401 Washington Ave. | All ages, $3 minor surcharge, 6 and under free | $28 – $65

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One of the more recent additions to the ever-evolving festival scene in St. Louis will see its second celebration this year in Laz Jazz Fest ‘24, co-produced by local artists The Brothers Lazaroff and Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos. Year two will see this special homegrown festival expand from the historic Grandel Theatre in the Grand Center Arts District to the tents of the remarkable Big Top just down the street.

The expansion to two tents allows for the creation of the Cosmos tent, curated by Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos, featuring up-and-coming artists from and connected to the St. Louis jazz community. In addition, this year’s lineup boasts the Sun Ra Arkestra as headliner. As pioneers in the Afro-futurism movement in artistic expression, the Sun Ra Arkestra has been opening minds since the mid-1950s with space-age jazz, distinct in its groundbreaking sounds, otherworldly dancing, and so much shiny adornment. The Arkestra has produced over 100 recorded albums since its inception and has been led since 1995 by saxophonist Marshall Allen, who recently marked 100 revolutions around the sun. 

The Arts STL had the fortunate opportunity to talk with David Lazaroff about Laz Jazz Fest ‘24 and its evolution from a residency at Jazz at the Bistro to a St. Louis cultural moment. This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.

Can you tell me a little bit about where the idea for Laz Jazz Fest came from? Is this like a long simmer idea, a bolt of lightning, or just an opportunity that appeared? How did this come about?

David Lazaroff: That’s a great question. Well, 2015 or 16, we put together this project that we called Laz Jazz. It’s just our band, Brothers Lazaroff. We’re kind of known as an Americana, roots-rock, jam band. But we all love jazz, everyone plays jazz, and we definitely have jazz in our music. My brother and I used to call it Laz Jazz when he and I would solo together. Some people look at jazz as another term for improvisational music and blending of styles. The two of us would solo together and experiment, but then we kind of did develop a certain style of songwriting where we would write in some swing. We would use jazz in the way we would use any folk music. So for this, we pitched this show to Jazz of the Bistro. We did Laz Jazz at the Bistro for, gosh, six or seven years, and we put out an album called Laz Jazz at the Bistro—which is going to be Volume One, because we’re going to put out Volume Two here at the festival, from last year.

So, we did six or seven years, doing weekends at the Bistro, doing jazz versions of our tunes, like, let’s take this tune and play this section in a bop, this section – swing it, this section – Latin jazz-style. We did it for a long time, and then we had this idea: we love jazz fest from New Orleans. Our mom’s from New Orleans. We were going down there for Jazz Fest. So, we had this idea: it’s not strict jazz. It’s Laz Jazz. It’s the groups that we like and feel like they are doing interesting stuff. Last year was just super fun and built a little bit of community for us in the process.

The Brothers Lazaroff

I’m sure having a first-year run is a good learning experience.

DL: Oh my gosh. Yeah.

What were some of the challenges and lessons learned from year one? How did that impact your setup for year two?

DL: It’s hard getting above the noise promoting a new local festival. We have a lot of friends that do cool local fests. They’re not multi-day festivals, but they’re cool hyper-local festivals that Kranzberg Arts Foundation, quite frankly, has helped make a reality by being such an advocate in the way they provide spaces at subsidized cost. When I think of these local festivals—culminating in Music at the Intersection, which is one of our sponsors—a lot of the artists either have played or are playing it, and we’re definitely supportive of what they’re doing in the area. Hopefully, our event is a little bit of a pre-party for that, getting people down to the intersection at the Big Top.

But I think what we learned is more about building community through music. The more we lean into that, the more fun it is, and the more support we get. We’re just trying to partner with organizations to get more awareness, because it’s definitely hard to get above the noise. That’s the modern dilemma of social media, getting everything seen through social media. But ultimately, we stayed focused. Last year the festival ended up leading to a really cool thing with Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos, so [this year] we asked them to produce the tent. That’s another thing we’re doing differently this year—we brought them in to get outside of our own little crew and extend it by giving them a tent to produce and putting on the festival with another group. We’re collaborating with them. We helped produce a live record for them, following their performance at last year’s festival, and through that, we feel like we’re pulling from two different themes now, which is kind of fun this year.

That’s a great evolution of a partnership.

DL: Yeah, it’s very natural. We both had enthusiasm and we both just wanted to make good art. Our focus is that everyone’s going to bring some really cool sets of music that you’re going to get back to back to back to back a lot of really great local stuff. And then, we went for one headliner, and we were able to land our first choice, which was the Sun Ra Arkestra. You know, sometimes the stars align in that way, the cosmos and the planets align, and we were able to make that happen. So now we’re just trying to hustle and hand out flyers and get people to come on out.

Sun Ra Arkestra is huge!

DL: Well, I’m glad you said that! It’s either huge or you don’t know it, so we’re excited to bring them here for the first time in a while, and turn on people that aren’t familiar, because, you know, the show is super fun and historical and vital.

I’m excited I don’t have to travel to finally see them. I feel like that’s a band that, if you’ve seen them, you probably had to go to another city, another festival, or a bigger city to see them. I know some folks who went to see them in Columbia at the Blue Note last year. I thought this was going to have to be a destination concert. I was so thrilled to see that lineup announcement, that they’re coming here, and it’s going to be part of this amazing festival. I’m excited about the entire lineup, but this in particular is quite the crowning jewel for the festival.

DL: That’s so great.

The Sun Ra Arkestra

I saw you had the Spaces is the Place documentary promoted in the socials. Do you have any other suggestions or places you would point a person if they wanted to do any pre-festival homework on the bands?

DL: I say you go to Spotify or Apple Music and just dig in. I’ve been doing that myself, just to be inspired. But there’s lots of live performances. There’s a great one from a David Sanborn [TV] show, Night Music with David Sanborn with the Sun Ra Arkestra in 1989, with a cool interview he does with Sun Ra. Marshall Allen just turned 100. He’s now the most senior member and has been band leader for a long time. 

So some of these other folks are new to me. Where might we see any of these folks around town?

DL: Well, one of the things that bringing on Blvck Spvde and Joey Ferber did is they’re bringing younger and newer artists. Helena Bishop and Dee Jazz are fairly new. Mesonjixx is from Nebraska. New artists are getting a chance. Dee Jazz—we saw her with Jawwaad at The Dark Room for the first time in Spvdes. They knew her, and I was just like, man, she should play the fest. David Y Los Diablos is David Gomez’s new outfit, and he just recently moved to San Diego, but he’s coming back in town in June. Boogieman does stuff around town. Anita Jackson’s all over. K Kudda Muzic is part of Kinfolk and Them. They do all sorts of interesting stuff. So, a lot of those guys are in Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos. It will be a combination of some younger acts that Spvde wants to lift up and some folks from our more experimental side as well. Some of them have that art show, “we’re not on social media” thing. 

Sometimes that makes for an amazing lineup. You have your headliners, and then you have your undercard, which is full of undiscovered treasures. 

DL: Exactly. That’s what I really respect about Blvck Spvde and the Cosmos. He’s always lifting up the folks around him. Heal Center—that’s a great camp, a free jazz camp program for youth. They were at our last year program because they were at the Grandel Dark Room during the week we were throwing Laz Jazz Fest last year. So this year we asked them to come out and play the fest again. But they’re like junior high, early high school kids, and they can all play really good. I’m really excited about the whole lineup.

So last year it was at the Grandel?

DL: Last year it was the Grandel. This year it’s at the Big Top to get more of a festival feel. We’re moving outside to get more of a festy vibe. And it was pretty packed last year, and so we need a little more space, too.

Well, that’s a good problem to have! And it’s such a unique space. I’m always looking for more opportunities to see something there. For the festival vibes, that seems like a great choice. And will there be some kind of vendor or community organization aspect to this, too?

DL: Yeah, we are raising money. All the proceeds go to St. Louis Art Place Initiative. It’s a Kranzberg-funded organization that gets artists equity through homeownership financing, so artists that may not be able to afford a house, they have a system to make that a reality.

Everybody could use that kind of support right now, but I’m sure for artists in particular, homeownership is a challenge.

DL: They’re building a bunch of houses, and they’re about to do their next round of the applicants. We like partnering with them. We did that the first year, and again for this year.

It’s nice that you’re able to give something back to the community in a couple of different ways through this event. So, when all is told, and we get to the end of the festival, and we’re looking back on this year, what does a successful festival look like to you?

DL: Well, I would say, obviously, a great turnout that feels like we get a great group of folks coming in to see the art that we put together.

Well, we know that’s going to happen.

DL: That’s a big one. What I like is—for artists, we don’t usually get a chance to enjoy each other’s music very often. That’s what was great last year, I felt like I got to enjoy everybody’s set. We got to eat some good food. We have Sister Cities [Cajun] doing the food this year. So, you got some jazz-festy food. And we’ve got a good cause. Just the feeling of community, the feeling that like-minded artists are getting a chance to play for their peers and getting a chance to play for each other’s audiences, and then all of us getting to enjoy the gift of Sun Ra that we kind of enabled by all playing the festival and doing this work, that would be success, just to feel like we had a nice cultural moment.

When it all hits, when you’re working with the Kranzberg Arts Foundation, you’re working with Jamo Presents, you’re working with Valeria Rodriguez, Art Place, our sponsorship—PK construction is actually our head sponsor. They’re helping. The Angad Arts Hotel is a sponsor. The restaurant Turn is a sponsor. So we have a lot of great community partners that are doing little pieces, New Music Circle—everyone’s helping make it. So, that’s what’s cool. Everyone feels a little bit like, “Hey, we’re kind of creating something experimental together and making some beautiful noise.” That’s the goal. | Courtney Dowdall

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