A Helping Hand: A Peek Inside Summer Fest’s “Festival Family”

◀ Back to blog

Past festival attendees know that come the second weekend in August, the streets of downtown San Jose are full of sounds from around the world, with stages blaring anything from straight ahead and Latin jazz to swing, blues and more. Yet what they may not know is that this annual extravaganza only happens through the dedication of hundreds of staff and volunteers who return every year to the welcome faces they’ve worked with in the past. It’s a rag-tag family that converges to help put on Silicon Valley’s largest celebration of music and culture.

For Jim Snowden, contributing to that goal started in 1988, when the festival was just in its infancy. A former San Jose Jazz board member and an avid fan of jazz, Snowden was at the meeting that picked the first board of directors for San Jose Jazz, then the Jazz Society. This past Summer Fest marked the 23rd festival he’s helped put on. He even has grandchildren who have been to every festival since they’ve been born – a feat which has earned them the tag “festival babies” from fellow attendees.

Getting involved was a no-brainer for Snowden. “When I got the call about the Jazz Society, I couldn’t pass that up,” said Snowen. “To help promote that music more, especially in a culturally diverse area like San Jose, that was a dream calling. Once I got involved, it’s in me now. I bleed jazz.”

Snowden’s continued involvement goes back to the beginning — and core — of the festival. Although he continues to label each successive Summer Fest his last, Festival Director Bruce Labadie keeps him working. Snowden attributes that to Labadie’s steadfast commitment to the festival over the years. “There wouldn’t have been a third festival if Bruce Labadie wouldn’t have been there,” said Snowden. “Bruce took a loan out on his home to make sure that that festival went off. That’s how dedicated he is, and that’s why I’ve been working with Bruce that long, because I know the type of person he is.”

With so much festival experience, Snowden had his share of stories to tell, but the one that continues to stand out for him is the year the festival seamlessly handled a regional blackout. “When the blackout [happened], the main stage was in between artists, so we rushed to bring a generator from one stage to the main stage to get it plugged in. The main stage went off [and] people in the audience didn’t even know there was a blackout,” revealed Snowden. Since nearby venues were still without power, word spread and folks began to flock to downtown San Jose. “There were people coming from the Concord Pavilion. People came from Shoreline [Amphitheater]. All these events that were canceled because of the blackout, people came to San Jose because they heard the music was still going on.”

As he noted during our interview, his family is part of a network of long-time regulars. “The area where my family sits, most of those people have been there every year from the beginning. It’s like a big family reunion that weekend. . . . That’s worth coming back [for] every year.” For Snowden and his family, Summer Fest has become woven into the fabric of their lives, an annual weekend retreat to catch up with old friends.

San Jose Jazz Summer Fest, now two years shy of a quarter century , continues to be furthered by loyal supporters of San Jose Jazz’s mission of promoting jazz education and performance. Snowden is certainly one such case, and so is Keith Butler, a four-year veteran who helped on the finance team at this year’s event. He was hooked after his first year on staff and continues to take time off to fly from Chicago and room with friends for the weekend, all to lend a helping hand as part of the Summer Fest staff.

Butler’s continued commitment to Summer Fest stems from the friendships and good vibes from those he works with. “I think it’s the camaraderie that I built the first year with everybody,” Butler said. “It didn’t feel like I was just an outsider who only came in to work the event for the weekend. It was like I actually was a part of the jazz family, and it made me have such a great experience with people that I look forward to it.”

Part of what excites Butler about the festival is the eclectic line-ups it continues to churn out. Summer Fest’s varied acts are a far cry from the programming he runs into back home. “In Chicago, all the festivals are separate. There’s a blues festival. Then there’s the jazz festival. Then there’s the gospel festival, whereas at the San Jose Jazz [Summer Fest], you can get all of it all in the same weekend.”

Snowden helps with other festivals, but knows that nothing will eclipse Summer Fest. “I help out at the Monterey [Jazz Festival]. I have helped out at San Francisco [Jazz Festival], but San Jose, of course it’s special to me because I was on the board for 11 years. The founding board members, we all became close. We took cruises together. This is my festival.”

There’s certainly an ownership over the experience that these two men take to heart, and it’s further evidence as to why Summer Fest continues to grow. San Jose Jazz thrives due to dedicated grassroots support, and these two men are fantastic examples of the great support structure the non-profit has in place.

Though it is a considerable task to fly out on his own dime to work a festival, Butler believes that the positives far outweigh the negatives. “I don’t feel like I’m giving up a lot to actually take this weekend to come out to San Jose Jazz [Summer Fest],” admitted Butler. “I feel like there’s so much that I gain each time that I do it, and it’s just building on top of that foundation of family that I have built with certain people and a lot of the people on the staff. That’s what makes it so powerful and so amazing for me.”

This year’s Summer Fest may be behind us, but San Jose Jazz is still hard at work  putting on over 150 year-round live music events throughout the South Bay. Get involved today by volunteering for one of our many year-round programs. Connect with great people as well as a great organization dedicated to furthering music education and performance in the South Bay.