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The longtime festival producer on why this year's festival is not to be missed!

By: Jun. 11, 2024
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Interview: Danny Melnick of 47TH ANNUAL FREIHOFER'S SARATOGA JAZZ FESTIVAL at SPAC  ImageDanny Melnick is no stranger to producing live music events. He began producing concerts, tours, and festivals in the late 1980s and hasn't even begun to slow down. In addition to producing the Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival, he also serves as the Artistic Director of Carnegie Hall's "The Shape of Jazz" series, and was personally selected by the founder of the Newport Jazz Festival, George Wein, to serve first as the Associate Producer and ultimately the Producer of this festival. In all, Melnick has produced over 100 festivals in the U.S., Europe, and Japan.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with him to get some insight on this year's Saratoga Jazz Festival and why it's going to be one for the books.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

So you're the producer for the Freihofer's Saratoga Jazz Festival. How did you first become involved with this particular event?

I'll just give you a little bit of history of the event and tell you how I came into it. George Wein, who was this great festival empresario who passed away last year at age 96, created the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island in 1954. In the ‘70s, this festival was not happening due to riots at the festival in 1971. He moved the festival to New York City in 1972 and called it Newport Jazz New York, then he started the Newport Jazz Festival in Saratoga in ‘78 at SPAC as a partner with the venue.

I started working for George in ‘90, and then in ’91, George's company at the time had this bus that would go up from the office on West 74th Street, pick up any musicians that needed to come up for the day, they would play their sets, and then in the evening they would go back to New York. That first year in ‘91, I was the bus boy. I slept in the office the night before, got up at like 6 a.m., went around the corner and got bagels, then rode the bus up to Saratoga, hung out all day with the musicians, came back at night, and did it all again the next day. Then in '92 I started working on the festival doing miscellaneous jobs like t-shirts and all sorts of different things.

When did you begin actually producing the Jazz Festival?

I began booking all the artists in Saratoga and really producing the festival in 1999. Beginning with the 2008 festival, I became a partner with Saratoga Performing Arts Center in producing the event and I still book all the bands after all these years, so I've really been running the festival since ‘99 and I've been a partner since 2008.

So as you're booking all of these artists and putting the event together, what is your goal in curating this festival year to year?

The festival is just two days with two stages and we typically have somewhere between 21 and 24 bands depending on the schedule. I look at the festival schedule like a jigsaw puzzle—every booking has to fit within every other booking and the finished puzzle really has to be this amazing picture of where the music is today. I try really hard to bring in varying styles of music that are connected to jazz. Obviously we want to bring in a lot of great names and popular artists that sell tickets, but also bring in a lot of artists that have excellent bands, great presentation, people that really excite the audience. Over the years at Saratoga, I've been very lucky that the audience is open-minded and really cool. They want Funk, Latin music, a little bit of Blues, they want Straight Ahead Jazz, some Avant Garde jazz. We've done a lot of classic Soul and R&B and all sorts of different things over the years. It's a cool event to produce because the audience is incredibly diverse, so we're not trying to do one micro-focus thing for one small audience. We're trying to do something for a wide variety of people.

What would you say sets Saratoga's jazz festival apart from some of the other festivals you've worked on?

The thing that's so amazing about Saratoga is the venue. SPAC is this awesome historic amphitheater with this beautiful lawn. When you drive into the park you go down the Avenue of the Pines and there's just majestic pine trees lining the whole thing. It's in this really idyllic spot and Saratoga Springs is a really cool town. There are so many awesome restaurants, great galleries, bookstores, and artisan shops, so for me as a producer, to have that location in a really hip town lends itself to curating this event. Over the years I found myself hanging out up there a lot, really enjoying the venue, and at the Jazz Festival the audience just loves hanging out there. There's also a second, smaller stage in the back of the lawn and that's a really cool spot. We have a great arts and craft scene going on at the festival, and this year we're really upping our food game and there's a big bar at the Hall of Springs that's open. I think the venue is just this super cool spot that is a real joy to work at.

Are there any acts that you're particularly excited that you were able to book this year? Anyone that you're really thrilled to have as a part of this Festival?

I love all the bands, but we have a lot of artist debuts this year. On Saturday we have Lake Street Dive headlining and it’s their festival debut. Rachael, the lead singer, actually played at the festival with her jazz band on the small stage many years ago, so I'm very psyched to have her back and have Lake Street Dive come for the first time. Yousef Dayes is this awesome British hip hop drummer/beat maker and he's coming with his band The Yousef Dayes Experience. We have this incredible New Orleans's all-star band with three different drummers: Shannon Powell, Herlin Riley and Jason Marsalis. I've seen them play many times over the years and that's going to be a really killer set. Somebody that has been with us for a bunch of years is the piano player Joey Alexander. Joey played the festival when he was 13, when he was 15, when he was 18, and now towards the end of June he'll be turning 21, so I'm really excited to have Joey back.

Then on Sunday we have Laufey coming, who's this incredible new singer songwriter. She just did two sold out Radio City Music Hall shows a few weeks ago. She plays guitar, cello, piano, sings, and has a great band. We have Stanley Clarke, the very famous bass player, coming to play with his band doing a tribute to Chick Corea’s Return to Forever. Norah Jones is coming back to headline. Interview: Danny Melnick of 47TH ANNUAL FREIHOFER'S SARATOGA JAZZ FESTIVAL at SPAC  Image

A lot of great stuff on the Second Stage as well. I have Pedrito Martinez, the awesome Cuban percussionist and singer. I'm really pretty psyched about the whole thing, but those are some of the bigger highlights that I can mention.

Obviously the music is such a huge part of this event, but when you end up on these festival scenes, there's always so much beyond the music that really brings the whole experience together. What other things can Festival goers expect beyond just these incredible musicians?

The cool thing about the Jazz Festival is that they allow people to bring in a lot of stuff. People can pitch a tent for the day, they can bring in folding picnic tables and beach chairs. They're not allowed to bring in glass and they can't cook food on premesis, but if they want to roll in a cooler with sandwiches and drinks for themselves, they can do that. We have this great scene near the small stage where the artists do merch signings and take selfies with people. The crafts area is going to be a lot bigger this year. It's going to be broken up into a few tents and be a flea market type of scene. We also have a whole bunch of new food vendors coming this year with oysters, barbecue, vegetarian options, some Asian cuisine, so that's going to be really cool. 

I think that was pretty much everything I had. Is there anything else that you would like to touch on or include before we wrap things up today?

Just let people know that it's the 47th annual Festival and we’re really psyched to put it on again! All the ticket information and the full lineup can be found at It takes place June 29th and 30th and it's free parking. Ticket sales have been great so far and we're looking forward to seeing everybody this June!


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