Jamaicaâs Jazz & Blues Fest Goes Soulful

Gramps Morgan prays, John Legend plays

The 17th annual Jamaica Jazz & Blues festival was another rousing success this season, provided you’re not a concertgoer in the mood for either jazz or blues music. With this year’s eclectic lineup including reggae and R&B greats like Mary J. Blige, John Legend and Third World (among many others), the misleadingly named concert fest delivered something for nearly everyone over the course of its three-day stint at the outdoor Greenfield Stadium in Trelawny, Jamaica.

Originally christened the Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues festival back in 1996, the event—Jamaica’s largest music celebration—was never that big on jazz or blues. Formerly an October-November festival held in the soft tourism season, yearly rains forced a schedule change to late January. With attendance currently hovering around 35,000, Jamaica Jazz & Blues now rivals Montego Bay’s beloved summertime Reggae Sumfest for locals and tourists alike.

“Forty years!” shouted Bunny Rugs, lead singer of funky reggae band Third World, over and over Thursday night. Third World—known for international hits like “Sense of Purpose,” “96º in the Shade” and “Now That We Found Love” (sampled for Heavy D’s 1991 smash)—first formed in 1973. The quintet has endured so long, they can brag about opening for the Jackson 5 at the Jamaican National Stadium way back in 1974. Night one of Jamaica Jazz & Blues closed with Third World taking the stage at two in the morning to uproarious applause.

Following a slew of locally successful reggae bands (including Chaka Demus & Pliers and an especially impressive Coco Tee), Third World’s set began with a brief video commemorating the group’s 40th anniversary. As they breezed through their deep catalog of chart-toppers, Bunny Rugs revealed that the night’s show was the first in a set of dates for the group’s anniversary tour. Towards the end, longtime guitarist Cat Coore (son of former deputy prime minister David Coore) took center stage with a cello and regaled the crowd with a lengthy solo incorporating Bob Marley’s “Redemption Song.” Jamaicans showed their love as Third World accepted a plaque from festival organizers at nearly four a.m.

Mary J. Blige seemed like an obvious headliner to close out the festival; certainly more obvious than the actual closer, KC and the Sunshine Band. But the 42-year-old Queen of Hip-Hop Soul capped off night two instead, following Michael Bolton (who, fronting an all-white band, announced a Motown covers album for 2013), reggae singer Etana and smooth-jazz Barbadian sax man Arturo Tappin.

Mary J. Blige at Jamaica Jazz & Blues

Mary J. Blige brings fire to Jamaica's Jazz & Blues Festival

Even in her early 40s, Blige still out-swaggers even Jay-Z on a concert stage, strutting like an MC spitting bars as she hammered the melodic verses of “Family Affair,” “Be Without You” and “Testimony.” Decked out in white shorts with matching white blazer and black leather heels, Blige came dressed for the Jamaican heat while sparking fire of her own. After switching into a cool red dress, she mock apologized to brothers in the audience for repeatedly addressing the ladies, but her women-empowerment anthems had everyone on their feet, male and female. Blige’s set hit its peak with My Life highlights like “I’m Goin’ Down,” “Be Happy” and “You Bring Me Joy.”

And so, could the Jamaica Jazz & Blues fest have ended Friday evening with Blige? Not exactly. Literal and figurative legends Dionne Warwick and John Legend, scheduled for the closing Saturday, helped make the last night more populated than either Thursday or Friday. Vendors set up all over the grounds of Greenfield Stadium got their money’s worth, with music fans buying up Jamaican tchotchkes left and right. Dionne Warwick followed a brief set by Monica (who, in turn, followed reggae acts Raging Fyah and Romain Virgo), but the septuagenarian singer failed to astound with mellow hits like “Do You Know the Way to San Jose,” and her ethereal voice sounded spotty.

John Legend brought the crowd to attention without a band. With nothing but ten fingers and a grand piano, the multiple Grammy-winning pianist made the most of anthemic moments like “Again.” Rolling like the true headliner of the festival, Legend brought out reggae singer Gramps Morgan to perform “Psalms 23” (a duet of Morgan’s originally sung with Buju Banton), and again invited surprise guest Tarrus Riley to collab on “Stay With You” (a 2006 hit for the Jamaican-American singer). Legend sparks mercurial reactions—you’re either in his corner or you’re not—but his piano-only cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get It On” even enthralled the skeptics.

In the end, soul ruled the Jamaica Jazz & Blues fest, with a substantially heavy assist from reggae (both roots and lovers rock styles). 

Miles Marshall Lewis is the Arts & Culture Editor of EBONY.com. He’s also the Harlem-based author of Scars of the Soul Are Why Kids Wear Bandages When They Don’t Have BruisesThere’s a Riot Goin’ On and Irrésistible. Follow MML on Twitter at @furthermucker, and visit his personal blog, Furthermucker.