Image painted by Maryann Lucas.
Sag Harbor resident Kelly Connaughton’s mission in life is to make music accessible to everyone, and in doing so create new generations of listeners eager to take in a live performance, bolstering the ability of local musicians to thrive.
Connaughton, the former director of the Henry Mancini Music Festival in Los Angeles and former regional director of the Grammy Awards, didn’t necessarily expect to find a hot bed of local music when she first arrived in Sag Harbor two years ago.
And then she walked into the Bay Burger Jazz Jam Session on a random Thursday night.
What Connaughton, along with the throngs of regular jazz jam session attendees, walked into was a group of varied and talented local jazz musicians, who had found the right venue to share their art. For Connaughton, it was the beginnings of the realization that Sag Harbor Village was the kind of community on the East End ready, willing and able to celebrate music.
“I thought, this is amazing,” said Connaughton this week. “So I kept going, and then I started to go to see Jim Turner play and then the singer songwriters started performing in Sag Harbor and when the jazz jam session ended at the close of the season, Bay Street Theatre opened its doors for free to host them. It was inspiring, and I knew then it was possible to host a music festival in Sag Harbor.”
Two years later, with the help of drummer and jazz jam founder Claes Brondel, and fellow board members including co-artist director Kerry Farrell, Grenning Gallery owner Laura Grenning and Bay Burger co-owner John Landes, Connaughton’s dream is about to become a reality.
The Sag Harbor American Music Festival will debut at the end of this month, September 30 and October 1, bringing the musicians who often find a place to play in the village together over the course of two days, to celebrate the genres of music created and loved in the United States, including jazz, folk, blues and rock.
While the schedule for the festival is not quite set in stone, Connaughton shared the tentative line-up, which will feature musicians playing at local businesses, churches and not-for-profits throughout Sag Harbor, meant to move residents and visitors throughout the village, ideally supporting the local economy while enjoying a Saturday afternoon and evening bursting with live music.
The festival will open on Friday, September 30 with a concert and fundraiser for the festival at Bay Street Theatre featuring double Grammy Award winning artist Monica Mancini, in a tribute to her father Henry Mancini, and Randy Brecker’s All Start East End Band, starting with a reception at 7 p.m. It is one of the only events of the weekend that will come with an admission price, of $30, in an attempt for the festival to break even in its inaugural year.
On Saturday, solitary street musicians with be posted in two to three locations throughout Sag Harbor’s Main Streets during daylight hours. Starting at noon, musicians will perform free hour-long performances throughout the village, starting with the Who Dat Loungers at the Old Whalers’ Church at 12:30. Throughout the day other groups, including the Richie Siegler 4tet, Dick Johansson & the Highlanders, the Keve Wilson Duo, Caroline Doctorow, the Vanessa Trouble Trio and Dan Bailey, among others.
An after party at Dodds & Eder, which will cost $10, will feature Gene Casey and the Lonesharks at 9 p.m. to close out the festivities.
Connaughton said festival organizers have tried to keep things small for the first year, aiming for success, and hopefully making the Sag Harbor American Music Festival one of the many annual events in the village that help bring visitors to the region, and its restaurants and stores.
“A lot of people can be jazz-a-phobic,” noted Connaughton. “Because this is a free event our hope is people check it out and realize there is something special there.”
The concept of having the festival and including street musician performances was born out of Connaughton’s work with the Henry Mancini Institute. Mancini was a composer, conductor and arranger who developed the jazz arrangement to Peter Seller’s “The Pink Panther,” and wrote the music for “Moon River” and “Days of Wine and Roses.”
“We held free concerts, and part of my whole mission in life became making music accessible to everyone and building audiences for people,” sand Connaughton. “We brought music to the streets, and Sag Harbor’s wide sidewalks happen to be very conducive to that kind of performance.”
In general, said Connaugton, the community and businesses alike have rallied around the idea. The American Hotel, the Grenning Gallery, LifeStyle, Page at 63 Main, Phao, the Romany Kramoris Gallery, La Superica, Sylvester & Co., Tutto il Giorno, Pomme Café, as well as the Old Whalers Church, The Whaling Museum and Marine Park will all host musicians during the Saturday festival.
“The general community also loves that it is after the summer rush and they can participate,” said Connaughton. “It has been kind of a rough summer and people are happy the festival will come after the season is over, when locals can come but we can also bring business to Sag Harbor.”
“But mostly, I think this is a time we can hopefully all get together and celebrate our community, and of course, great music.”