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In defense of the strong 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival, coming Memorial Day weekend

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In 2007, the Atlanta Office of Cultural Affairs threw a no-holds-barred party for its annual Memorial Day weekend jazz event, celebrating the 30th anniversary of the Atlanta Jazz Festival in its natural home, Piedmont Park. It seemed that all the big names — Herbie Hancock, Bobby Hutcherson, the Bad Plus and the Vijay Iyer Quartet — came to Atlanta to congratulate the city for supporting live jazz.

But for two years after the 2007 celebration, the festival suffered from crises of identity and location, presenting local jazz musicians — who admittedly deserved the recognition — on a stage where Sonny Rollins and other jazz giants had stood.

Regina Carter will play the 2011 Atlanta Jazz Festival on May 29.

This year’s festival, which will take place in Piedmont Park on May 28-30, is something of a return to former thrilling times. It features Regina Carter, Sean Jones, Gerald Clayton and the “Ninety Miles” project. Local saxophonist Mace Hibbard calls it “the best lineup in years.” (For details, visit www.atlantafestivals.com.)

I’ve been guilty of focusing on the negative aspects of the festival’s recent history: its relocation to desolate Woodruff Park downtown due to the drought, a short death before the 2009 event and then a semi-successful rebirth in Grant Park. But this is a small sliver of the history of this decades-old celebration of jazz, and I’m ready to move on.

Sure, before the festival returned to Piedmont Park last year, it seemed like a vagabond with split personalities. But there was still very good jazz, and it was still free. Take a look at Downbeat magazine’s national summer festival guide, and you’ll be hard pressed to find another one with the firepower being presented in Atlanta without an entrance fee.

It’s questionable whether the lineup will ever equal its historic counterparts. The first jazz festival in Atlanta — a stepfather of the current event — took place May 27-29, 1966, in Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium and featured Louis Armstrong, Dave Brubeck, Stan Getz and Count Basie. A Sarasota Journal reporter took pains to paint the 18,000 festival-goers as upstanding citizens: “Those associating jazz festivals with persons of the long-haired Beatle look would have been disappointed in Atlanta’s. Not a beard nor beatnik was noted, and the crowd, led to seats by ushers in red-striped jackets, was as well-behaved and well-dressed as if they were at a downtown concert.”

The current era of the city’s free jazz festival began in 1977. During its run, it has been produced by many notables, including Rob Gibson, who now runs the Savannah Music Festival. Gibson also was the first director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, so he’s responsible for the way a large part of America thinks about jazz. That’s a pretty good pedigree.

Gerald Clayton will also perform on May 29.

As our festival, a living, breathing crusader for nationally known jazz in Atlanta, has evolved over the years, it has displayed warts and bruises, but it goes on. Neither Herbie Hancock nor Dave Brubeck nor any other aging jazz giant will be here this year, and they probably won’t ever return. That’s fine. Whatever you think of the recent rough years or the current state of jazz in Atlanta, it’s time to come home to Piedmont Park.

The festival deserves a listen on both Saturday and Sunday, but if time is not on your side, here are the two acts you simply must not miss:

The Gerald Clayton Trio. 7 p.m. Sunday, May 29. Clayton represents the next generation of jazz artists, and he has played on some of my favorite albums of the past few years. The pianist, who collaborates with trumpeter Roy Hargrove and other young and not-so-young guns, has also performed extensively with his father, the esteemed bassist John Clayton. Gerald Clayton will play the festival in support of his latest release, “Bond: The Paris Sessions,” featuring bassist Joe Sanders and drummer Justin Brown.

Regina Carter. 9 p.m. Sunday, May 29. When Carter last brought her violin to Atlanta, as part of a thrilling all-star event at Georgia Tech, she was masterful. At the festival, she’ll explore her African folk song project, “Reverse Thread.”

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