Balcones Heights Jazz Festival at the Wonderland of the Americas Amphitheater.
The Balcones Heights Jazz Festival is held at the Wonderland of the Americas Amphitheatre. Credit: Courtesy / Balcones Heights Jazz Festival

This year’s Balcones Heights Jazz Festival is departing from tradition and devoting its entire lineup to women performers. While there are music festivals devoted to women, the local festival that typically has featured mostly male lineups is choosing a different path.

In its 26th year, the free festival devoted to smooth jazz begins July 12 with performances on each Friday through Aug. 2. On each Friday night at Wonderland of the Americas Amphitheatre, one opening act and one headliner perform for about an hour each. Performers slated for this year are Wednesday Ball and Ragan Whiteside (July 12), MiChelle Garibay-Carey and Jessy J (July 19), Elizabeth Mis and Jeanette Harris (July 26), and Kayla Waters and Lindsey Webster (Aug. 2).

Based on attendance numbers from past years, the festival expects to host more than 4,000 jazz lovers from all over the region.

Lorenzo Nastasi, the City of Balcones Heights’ director of economic development and public affairs, has been involved in planning and growing the festival for 15 years. Nastasi said that one of his first moves upon getting involved was to give the festival its name.

“Before it was just called ‘Jazz Fest,’ but I thought it was important to identify the festival with this community and to shape its identity that way,” he said.

Nastasi also reduced the festival to four weeks from the eight weeks it had run previously. His idea in so doing was to focus on quality rather than quantity.

Along the way, Nastasi said that he and others have tried to present diverse lineups of performers representing different age groups, cultural backgrounds, and genders. What started as a modest goal to “include at least one woman performer every year,” became something much bigger when planning got underway for this year, he said.

Inspired in part by the leadership of Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon and longtime Wonderland of the Americas General Manager Denise Bush, Nastasi and the planning team were quick to get excited about the idea of an all-women festival in 2019.

“There has just been so much controversy and negativity surrounding gender and women over the past few years that we thought, ‘Let’s take this focus on gender and do something positive with it,’” Nastasi said. 

“It’s not meant to be a political statement, just an act of celebration and recognition.”

For vocalist Ball, who will perform as a solo artist at the festival for the first time after 10 years of singing backup for other acts, said that she is “truly honored to perform alongside so many talented women.” The all-women aspect of the festival, to her, is a “nice cherry on top” of her first solo billing. 

“It is a big accomplishment and a bold step for Balcones Heights Jazz Festival,” she said.

“Woman have always been important to jazz music, but in my experience it has been hard as a woman to earn the same kind of respect that male performers get.”

As such, Ball sees the lineup as “an impactful thing for all female musicians, in jazz and in other styles.”

For Whiteside, a renowned East Coast flutist who has performed professionally since she was a teenager, being part of such a lineup is a first.

“I have never once had the experience of being on an all female line-up,” she said. “It’s always difficult anyway to be an independent musician, but adding that fact that I am a woman has just made it that much more difficult.”

She sees the festival’s lineup as “exciting” and “cutting edge.” But, more than anything, she is holding out hope that the idea will “inspire others to follow suit.”

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James Courtney

James Courtney is a freelance arts and culture journalist in San Antonio. He also is a poet, a high school English teacher and debate coach, and a proud girl dad.