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Long Island City jazz fest highlights boro talent

The first jazz festival at The Secret Theater in Long Island City this week attracted hundreds of borough residents to the 11-hour event that featured nearly all Queens-based musicians who hoped to highlight the talent that exists in a borough once home to Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald.

“We were inspired to do this because there is such a huge history of jazz in Queens,” said Richard Mazda, artistic director and owner of The Secret Theater. “There are so many good musicians here, but they don’t get to play very often in Queens. This festival is really quite special.”

Mazda teamed up with Long Island City resident Gus Rodriguez, a music booker, to produce Sunday’s festival, which they hope becomes an annual event that fetes local artists who have been drawn to western Queens because of the more affordable rent and proximity to Manhattan, where many jazz clubs are located.

“I’ve met so many great musicians in Long Island City and I thought why has there not been a Long Island City jazz festival before?” Rodriguez said. “There are so many great players. This is a great excuse to get together and celebrate high-quality music.”

Members of the 11 acts that performed throughout the day said they were thrilled to bring jazz back to a borough that was home to such music greats as Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, John Coltrane and Fats Waller. Tony Bennett grew up in the borough.

Musicians at Sunday’s event played a wide variety of jazz, including traditional New Orleans style, Bebop, Latin and experimental.

“I love playing gigs in Queens because you’ll see people from the neighborhood,” said Christian Coleman, a Long Island City musician who played Sunday. “I’ll see people in the audience who I’ve seen in the grocery store.”

Rodriguez said he hopes the event will open up new opportunities for Queens’ jazz artists to remain in the borough for gigs — something he said would benefit both the musicians and the residents who often have to travel to Manhattan or Brooklyn for live music.

“I have nothing but optimism that the scene will blossom,” Rodriguez said as he took a break in a massive tour bus donated to the festival for the day by Gibson Guitars, which helped to sponsor the event. “Places like Astoria and Long Island City are filled with talented people living in artistic exile and I’m hopeful this might instigate people, bar or restaurant owners to want to present this music more, to give a home to it.”

Long Island City resident Pete Macnamara, a trumpet player whose photos of jazz musicians decorated The Secret Theater’s walls Sunday, said the festival emphasizes that individuals do not need to go to Manhattan’s Blue Note jazz club to find impressive artists.

“Six months ago it dawned on me: There’s a lot of cats here,” Macnamara said. “Today really congeals that.”

A number of area organizations sponsored the festival, including Long Island City’s Sweetleaf Coffee and the Breadbox Cafe, both of which donated brunch for attendees.

RocketHub, a Web site created in part by Rodriguez which aims to fund artists’ projects with micro-giving, also helped to sponsor the day of music.

“There’s a wonderful, thriving, independent culture in Long Island City and we’re here because we want to get more connected to the scene,” said Jed Cohen, one of the Web site’s founders.

Reach reporter Anna Gustafson by e-mail at agustafson@cnglocal.com or by phone at 718-260-4574.

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