Sacramento Music Festival: The Times They Are a Changin’


If the Sacramento Music Festival were a movie star, it would be Elizabeth Taylor.

Just as Taylor kept changing husbands—Hilton-Wilding-Todd-Fisher- Burton-Burton-Warner-Fortensky, if anybody cares—the local music fest restlessly has changed its name, from Dixieland Jazz Jubilee to Sacramento Jazz Festival to, most recently, Sacramento Music Festival.

With such a generic moniker, marketing the four-day Memorial Day weekend fest is a “challenge,” admits Vivian Abraham, festival director. But the move away from traditional jazz toward a musically eclectic event was necessary, she says, for one simple reason: Audiences have changed.

No longer “just old people with banjos and umbrellas,” she quips, the newfangled festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary this year by dipping its musical paintbrush into every conceivable genre. While there still will be plenty of jazz—and not all of it traditional (there’s gypsy jazz, swing and more)—the key word here is variety. This year’s widely ranging roster signals the event’s continued musical evolution. With a mix of local, national and international artists performing everything from zydeco to mariachi to bluegrass, festivalgoers of all ages and musical tastes should be able to find something they love. Headliners include Tex-Mex rockers Los Lobos, bluesman John Lee Hooker Jr. and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson.

There even will be poetry set to jazz— “like the old beatnik days,” says Abraham. “It’s going to be wonderful.”

If anyone can shed historical perspective on the festival, it’s Abraham. Though it’s only her second year as “official” director, she’s been involved from early on, starting as a volunteer “right after the ninth festival,” she recalls. At the time, she was unemployed and going through a divorce, and decided to devote herself full time to the cause.

“It was just such a happy music,” she recalls of the earliest festivals, which were devoted to Dixieland. The Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society, the event sponsor, also is a fun group to work with, she says, and through the years she’s been fortunate to do “just about everything there is to do as a volunteer,” serving on the board for 14 years, including a stint as president. In 2001, she became a paid employee.

Around that same time, attendance at what is arguably Sacramento’s premier annual event—and its biggest Mardi Gras-like party—began a steady decline. Beginning in 2001, the festival lost nearly 3 percent of its audience every year, according to Abraham. While the recent recession didn’t help, changing musical tastes—and the dying off of the Dixieland diehards—also factored in. “A lot of it was attrition,” says Abraham. “It was time to reach out to the younger demographic, and we started doing that the last few years.”

With an increased focus on musical diversity— and the wonders of social media, which she believes has helped to promote the festival to a new audience—Abraham hopes they’re starting to shed some stereotypes. “People say they’re not coming because ‘I don’t like that type of music,’” says Abraham. “It’s very frustrating.” She counters such comments with her own one-liner.

“I always like to say we’ve got basically everything but classical and rap,” says Abraham.

That pretty much says it all.

The Sacramento Music Festival takes place Friday, May 24 to Monday, May 27 in Old Sacramento and major downtown hotels.

Tickets run $10–$110 (for a four-day event badge). For more information, visit or call (916) 444-2004.