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Short on funds, Syracuse Jazz Fest takes 1 year hiatus to develop better financial plan

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Syracuse Jazz Fest Executive Director Frank Malfitano (left).

Not since 1984 has Syracuse missed its annual Jazz Festival, but it was announced last week the event will not take place this year. The festival’s organizer said he needs to develop a more long-term, sustainable financial model to keep the festival going for years to come.

Jazz Fest has featured Aretha Franklin, B.B. King and Trombone Shorty in recent years. More than one million concertgoers have attended. But Executive Director Frank Malfitano said the festival fell short in fundraising by about $150,000 this year. A three-year contract with M&T Bank, worth $100,000 annually, ended in 2017.  

“Instead of looking at that as a loss, we’ve got an opportunity for a hero to step in and become title sponsor and naming sponsor for the Syracuse Jazz Festival,” Malfitano said.

He said the costs associated with the festival continue to go up.

“I was staggered by some of the numbers being tossed around for some of the people that we were interested in bringing in," Malfitano said. "For one artist, double the cost of our entire operating budget. That’s how crazy it’s gotten. We still had an amazing lineup of household names and legends ready to perform this year. Unfortunately we couldn’t raise the money.”

Malfitano said he’s competing for corporate naming sponsors against venues in Syracuse like the War Memorial and the recently named St. Joseph’s Health Amphitheater.

The festival is free each year and charging tickets could bring in the needed revenue. But Malfitano said he is against that.

“This music came from the community, came from its people, came from the African American community," Malfitano said. "I never want to be a part of anything that excludes the very community that created and gave us this incredible, global art form. This is all about us coming together as Americans to support American heritage cultural music. Jazz Fest is not leaving. We're going to continue on with the community's help. We're going to come back bigger and better than ever."

Malfitano said he will take a one-year hiatus to consider all the options as he tries to raise the money needed for three years and hopefully many more in the future.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.