This article was originally published in the Italian American newspaper, L’Italo Americano, as a part of my column “The Italian Diaries”.  CLICK HERE for the link. Subscribe to L’Italo Americano (in print or to the digital-only edition) on the site, as well!

“When I was in Umbria I stopped off at a small family-run winery just outside of Spello.  Enrico, the nephew of the owner (the only one who spoke English well enough to give the tour to an American) was on Spring holiday from his university in Perugia, a fact that he mentioned several times during my hour with him.  It just so happened that I was the only visitor on that mid-March day, and when Enrico found out it was my first time in Italy – and that I was alone! – he began telling me in an accent so heavy it was difficult to decipher all his words about the wonders of his “bell’Umbria”.  Like a broken spicket in the “on” position, he went on and on about Umbria’s military positioning, gastronomic significance and artistic treasures.

Most of it was a wash for me; I zoned out just listening to how melodious his Italian rhythms could make even germanic and stark English.  But two words broke through:

“Umbria Jazz”

Wait – Jazz?  In Italy? It seemed like the oddest combination!  I’ve always touted the phrase “Music is the universal language”, but to be confronted with it here was a bit startling.  My face must’ve changed because Enrico stopped, perhaps thinking he saw a look of recognition (instead of shock) on my face.  ”Yes, Umbria Jazz.  Is very famous.  You know it?”  He didn’t give me a chance to answer, though. “Is in Perugia, where I am at school.  Perugia is really best city in all of Umbria.  When I…”


But even though *I* had no idea what the Umbria Jazz Festival was, it turns out that it actually *is* quite famous.  And celebrating it’s 40th anniversary this year! Who knew?

In 1973 Carlo Pagnotta and Adriano Mazzoletti organized the first Umbria Jazz Festival as a series of free concerts at various venues in Terni (who still claims to be the birthplace of the Umbria Jazz Festival), Gubbio, Todi, Cittá della Pieve and Perugia. Pagnotta had moved back to Perugia after going to the university in Bologna 1955 and became a frequent patron of  Mazzoletti’s jazz club, the “Hot Club”.  With Mozzoletti’s pre-established relationships in the jazz community, the pair were able to attract some of jazz’s biggest names, including BB King, Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie.  The festival got so big, in fact, that they started having security and logistical problems, unable to prepare for the immense growth in attendance each year.  In 1975 Count Basie wasn’t even able to make it to the stage through the crowd of people gathered for the show!

After the assassination of political leader Aldo Moro in 1978, organizers decided to suspend the festival in light of socio-political conditions, not picking it back up until 1983 and permanently settling in Perugia.  Four years later, though, they decided to expand the festival, inviting pop and rock artists who they believed were “able to satisfy the tastes of all music lovers”.  Sting was the first special guest in 1987 and since then they’ve hosted pop music legends like Elton John, Prince, James Taylor, Phil Collins, Van Morrison, Earth Wind & Fire, Eric Clapton, Tony Bennett and Alicia Keys.

Now Umbria Jazz hosts a number of concerts in four different venues over a period of ten days (this year: July 5-14, 2013), some free and some ticketed.  At the Arena Santa Giuliana, Canadian jazz songstress Diana Krall opens up the festivities and American pop/R&B star John Legend performs a little later in the week.  Dee Dee Bridgewater, who performed at the first festival in 1973, is coming back to celebrate the festival’s 40th anniversary with an encore performance, and on July 12th Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea take the stage, for their 12th and 8th times, respectively.

A more “pure” jazz evening can be found each night at Teatro Morlacchi, and an “experimental” jazz project with a new generation of musicians will be performed in conjunction with Young Jazz of Foligno and the “Comune della cittadina umbra” at Palazzo della Penna.  If you’d like to sample some of Umbria’s famous cuisine while you tap your foot to Stefano Mincone or Renato Sellani with Massimo Moriconi, check out “Bottega del Vino” or “Taverna” for brunch, aperitifs or dinner.  Free concerts can be found every night in Piazza IV Novembre and every afternoon through evening in the Carducci Gardens.  And of course no one wants to miss the daily street parade at 6:30pm featuring “Funk Off” (yes, that’s actually they’re name.  I’m a fan and I haven’t even heard them!).

But of course, if you haven’t already booked your tickets for this year, chances are that, like me, you’re going to miss Umbria Jazz 2013.  There is, however, a mysterious tab for a webcam on their website (www.UmbriaJazz.It) that I’m hoping will give a glimpse of the action.  And Umbria Jazz “Winter” is going to be celebrating its 20th anniversary this December 28th – January 1st in Orvieto.  I’m going to be right nearby there this December so I’m thinking I might stop by.  Though I might feel a little odd ordering a Sloe Gin Fizz in Italy.”




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Turning my obsession with Italy into something I can pretend is constructive. Italy travel tips and stories for everyone.

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