Two years ago in its home at the Wonderland Mall of the Americas, the Balcones Heights Jazz Festival celebrated its 25th anniversary, then followed that milestone with a “year of the woman”-themed festival in 2019 featuring all female headliners.

While 2020 at first put the summer festival on pause with a cancellation of its live events, the coronavirus pandemic has helped inspire an evolution to a year-round concert series.

The first Balcones Heights Jazz Festival event of the 2020-2021 season will be the Virtual Christmas Jazz Concert, a free streaming broadcast Tuesday, Dec. 22, at 7 p.m., featuring performers MiChelle Garibay-Carey with PM Soul and Toro Flores with Zarabande singing holiday-themed tunes. The concert will be available on the City of Balcones Heights YouTube channel.

Though the festival has tried livestreaming in the past, this will be the first all-virtual concert, said organizer Lorenzo Nastasi.

“It’s that good old Yankee ingenuity,” Nastasi said. “We see it every day with businesses that have changed and adapted to survive.”

As director of economic development and public affairs for the City of Balcones Heights, Nastasi has seen the tourism industry adopt online programming to survive the pandemic and said he felt a virtual concert “is just a natural thing to do with what we have. … Doing the next best thing is a much better option than doing nothing and just waiting and wringing your hands.”

Mark Rodriguez of Sound City Productions had handled the technical aspects of producing the festival in past years, and had already begun adding video technology to his capabilities, Nastasi said, so no major changes were needed to pre-record a concert to offer online.

Regular festival emcee David Muñoz will return as virtual host, and taped special appearances by Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon and Sen. José Menéndez will be included, as would normally be the case, Nastasi said.

“We’ve tried to keep as much intact as possible” despite the forced changes brought on by the pandemic, he said.

Plans for future concerts in the upcoming season have not yet solidified, Nastasi said, and will depend on how the continuing pandemic affects possibilities.

“All options are open,” he said. “It’s an exciting time to be looking at what can we do? How do we do it?” Nastasi believes listening to the public is an important consideration in future planning.

Having an outdoor venue at the Wonderland Mall of the Americas can be both a plus and a minus, he said, with some attendees encountering difficulty with the hot summer weather typical of the festival’s usual July slot, and others wearing the heat as a badge of pride. The decision to expand to four concerts scheduled throughout the year was already in the works before the pandemic struck, but Nastasi said the main festival will continue to be held in July.

The Wonderland of the Americas Amphitheater during the 2018 Balcones Heights Jazz Festival. Credit: Courtesy / Balcones Heights Jazz Festival

“It’s been a tradition for 26 years, so you don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater, right?” Nastasi said. Future festivals will be reduced from four weekly concerts to two, with two other concerts in different months, and musical genres besides jazz are being considered.

“What we provide is something for the festival fans, and hopefully, attract new fans, because that’s always important,” he said.

After the Dec. 22 broadcast, the Virtual Christmas Jazz Concert will become available on the City of Balcones Heights website, Nastasi said.

Recalling the Jerry Herman classic tune “We Need A Little Christmas,” Nastasi said, “I think the same is true given the pandemic and the prospect [of] a dark, cold winter, that a little Christmas upbeat jazz – online, on your phone, when you want to take a break from your work and Zoom meetings, when it’s cold and dark outside – is not a bad thing.”

Nicholas Frank

Nicholas Frank moved from Milwaukee to San Antonio following a 2017 Artpace residency. Prior to that he taught college fine arts, curated a university contemporary art program, toured with an indie rock...