The Sounds of Sonoma: Sonoma Jazz + Festival

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Photography by Sonya Revell

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Spring has sprung and with Memorial Day right around the corner, the air up in Sonoma is abuzz with eager anticipation of this year’s Sonoma Jazz + Festival. One can certainly understand the excitement, as the lineup is one that should be trumpeted from the terracotta barrel rooftops to the grape-covered valleys. Ziggy Marley and northern California-native Chris Isaak are the Sunday night headliners, with Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Lyle Lovett, Joe Cocker, and Keb’ Mo’ also taking the main stage spotlight throughout the four-day, holiday weekend event.

 “We intentionally mix up the different genres of music-that’s why we call it Sonoma Jazz Plus. The ‘plus’ stands for so many different and wonderful things about the event-the weather, the region, the venue, the food, the wine, and the eclectic mix of world-class music.”

In the perfect pairing of wine and song, Sonoma Jazz + has been entertaining the region since its inception in 2005. It is a festival that serves as a celebration of the good life, including all of the essential elements that memories are made of: food, wine, music, and friends. By all accounts, the original intentions behind the event have been served. Stephanie Anderson Pugash, along with her late husband, James Pugash, brought Sonoma Jazz + to life when they bought a second home in the area. Inspired by the gracious, sociable, and carefree nature of its residents, the philanthropic couple immediately wanted to become active participants in their local community. “Even on that first scouting trip, it already felt so much like home. We wanted to get involved and do something to get to know our neighbors who lived up there,” explains Stephanie, an Albuquerque native who also resides in Tiburon.

Patterned after its sister festival, Jazz Aspen Snowmass, the Pugashes teamed up with the Colorado event executive Jim Horowitz, and hired him as a production partner. They began on the early work of producing the fundraising event, which raises money for music education programs in Sonoma County public schools, by agreeing to serve as the chairpersons and founding benefactors, underwriting the festival for a five-year period. (Their original founding grant draws to a close this year and Jazz Aspen Snowmass will step into the principal leadership role of the festival.)

The first year of Sonoma Jazz + kicked off with performances from Tony Bennett, Diana Krall, and Steve Winwood. “We wanted to create something special and magical-a fun event that would create community in Sonoma, so we decided that we really had to open with a bang,” says Stephanie. “I think that initially, when it started up, it was a lot of fun and people were open to the idea. But now, the event has grown in popularity and the word has spread, and it really has become what we wanted it to be-an exciting community event.” Since 2005, Sonoma Jazz + has hosted such revered names as Harry Connick Jr., Smokey Robinson, Boz Scaggs, and Bonnie Raitt. “We’ve had some tremendous performances throughout the years,” she says, though they may not all fit compactly in the jazz genre. “We intentionally mix up the different genres of music-that’s why we call it Sonoma Jazz Plus. The ‘plus’ stands for so many different and wonderful things about the event-the weather, the region, the venue, the food, the wine, and the eclectic mix of world-class music.”

While the main stage event takes place under the giant tent on Sonoma’s Field of Dreams baseball diamond, which can host more than 3,500 music lovers, the Wine & Song Around the Plaza program allows special ticket holders to enjoy wine tastings and hors d’oeuvres from eight different vendors within the town square. Last year saw the addition of a dance floor for the Thursday night shows, and a new after-hours program in 2009 will include live music at a local hotel. Stephanie explained the reason for this supplement to the festival format, “The way the nights always end up is that you’re just exhilarated from the music. You’re ready to dance and talk and socialize some more.”

When it comes to community leadership, only a handful of visionaries could compare with what Stephanie Anderson Pugash has done for Sonoma. Since 2005, Sonoma Jazz + has contributed more than $400,000 to local music programs within the Sonoma Valley public schools.

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