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Peaceful, family-friendly fun may be the goal of the Balcones Heights Jazz Festival, but even smooth jazz can get a little wild sometimes.
The 25th annual free festival runs Friday evenings through July at the Wonderland of the Americas Amphitheater, with smooth jazz stars headlining each night.
Some years ago, co-organizer David Muñoz recalled, two members of The Rippingtons left the stage while performing, and “walked across the water” of the reflecting pool fronting the amphitheater stage.
Normally, “the water serves as a kind of pristine setting,” Muñoz said, and “the atmosphere at the event is very peaceful.” The unique amphitheater is one reason for the festival’s enduring popularity, said co-organizer Lorenzo Nastasi, who also serves as director of economic development and public affairs for the City of Balcones Heights, an enclave municipality in Northwest San Antonio.
The festival began in 1994 as a venture of the KQXT radio station where Muñoz regularly hosts “Sunday Morning Jazz,” and the Wonderland of the Americas mall, with local and regional musicians playing to audiences of 300 or 400, Muñoz said.
“Once it got started, the news began to spread,” he said. Soon, the City of Balcones Heights joined in with funding and a desire to bring in national smooth jazz acts.
The festival retained its local flavor in part by bringing in jazz stars willing to work with local musicians, Muñoz explained.
“The event itself was created primarily to give exposure to local and regional bands first,” he said, and involvement from the City spearheaded its evolution into a much larger event.
Audiences numbering between 2,500-4,000 each Friday evening now enjoy free access to smooth jazz acts they might expect to pay $60-$100 to see in other cities, Nastasi said.
2018 headliners Peter White, Nick Colionne, Eric Darius, and festival fixture Slim Man are all veterans of the event and fan favorites, Nastasi said, brought back to help celebrate the milestone year.
“These are performers who have enjoyed being here, and performers the crowd has enjoyed having,” he said.
“It’s hard to believe that we are celebrating our 25th anniversary,” said Balcones Heights Mayor Suzanne de Leon, who has been going to the festival since she was elected to city council in 2004, she said.
“What always amazes me is the number of lovers of jazz who attend every year and don’t miss a performance. Some even come from out of state,” she said.
Nastasi seconded the mayor’s assertion, saying he regularly hears from attendees who have traveled in from Harlingen, Houston, Dallas, and even jazz capitol New Orleans.
“It’s a low-key event, a quality event, everybody is welcome,” Nastasi said, and that it has become a Balcones Heights institution.
The diversity and loyalty of the crowd despite the summer heat stand out to Nastasi. “People invariably say to me ‘Oh, it’s so hot,’” in July, he said, but “the crowds keep coming, and the performers keep coming back.”
Some people set up their free spots well in advance, the co-organizers said, describing coming to work at 8 a.m. Monday morning and already seeing 30 chairs ready and waiting for attendees.
“Where else can you attend a free concert and relax with your friends and family, listen to incredible smooth jazz while sitting next to the cool fountain in the amphitheater?” de Leon asked.
Take note that de Leon said “next to” the water, not in. Despite the temptation to cool off in the reflecting pool, Nastasi recommends that no one repeat The Rippington’s water-walk, due to the “very slippery, very dangerous” and uneven surface beneath the pool’s shallow water.
He recommended instead heading inside to the mall’s air conditioning, also highlighting its indoor restrooms, free parking, and accessible location as important features to the festival’s enduring popularity.
In commemoration of the festival’s anniversary year, the opening night on July 6 will begin at 6:30 p.m. with a performance by Warhawk, an eight-member ensemble from the United States Air Force Band of the West, stationed at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland.
Saxophonist and Bexar County Commissioner Paul Elizondo (Pct. 2), who was scheduled to perform the national anthem on opening night, will be unable to attend due to an injury.
The regular Friday shows begin at 7:30 p.m. with local and regional acts including Ruben V and Onel Jimenez, and headliners play at 9 p.m. The schedule is available at the festival’s official website.