By Dave Pehling

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — Now in its 36th year, the San Francisco Jazz Festival presented by SFJAZZ gathers an eclectic array of musical artists including piano legend Ahmad Jamal, New Orleans blues great Irma Thomas and more for a 13-day celebration that kicks off on Tuesday with a free block party.

Founded in 1983 as a two-day event that was originally called the Jazz in the City Festival, the San Francisco Jazz Festival has established itself as a globally renowned institution presenting some of the world’s greatest jazz artists including such icons as pianist McCoy Tyner, singer Tony Bennett, and saxophone greats like Sonny Rollins and the late Ornette Coleman at a variety of venues across the city. While the SFJAZZ Center stands as the main location for the concerts scheduled, the festival still utilizes other nearby stages including Davies Symphony Hall and Herbst Theatre.

The festival gets underway early Tuesday evening with the free block party in the SFJAZZ Center’s Hayes Valley neighborhood. Centered around two-block multi-use project PROXY at the corner of Octavia and Hayes a couple of blocks from the center, the event starts at 5 p.m. and will feature live music from local acts Beso Negro and noted saxophone talent Howard Wiley and his regular collaborators Extra Nappy, a group that features monster drummer Thomas Pridgen (formerly with the Mars Volta and Suicidal Tendencies and currently with Giraffe Tongue Orchestra) as well as food trucks and a beer garden.

The following night, the festival hosts piano great Ahmad Jamal at Davies for a special concert at Davies backed by his current quartet. An NEA Jazz Master and recognized as one of the most influential jazz musicians of the post bebop era, Jamal explored the importance of space in his playing and composition that led towards the “cool jazz” movement of the ’50s. Hailed by no less than Miles Davis as one of his cornerstone inspirations, the 87-year-old Jamal returns to the stage after a three year break from performing, delivering songs from his latest recording Marseille with his powerhouse group featuring his longtime rhythm section of drummer Herlin Riley (who has also played with Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, Harry Connick, Jr. and Marcus Roberts) and bassist James Cammack as well as talented Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena (Weather Report, the Talking Heads, the Rolling Stones).

Wednesday also brings two very different groups to the SFJAZZ Center itself. Veteran Hammond B-3 player and Bay Area resident Chester Thompson — a veteran musician who worked with Tower of Power for a decade prior to joining Santana — revisits his 1971 Black Jazz album Powerhouse during three sets in the intimate Joe Henderson Lab with his group featuring onetime Tower of Power drummer Ron E. Beck and the aforementioned Wiley on sax. Meanwhile, eclectic Colombian group Monsieur Periné fronted by bewitching vocalist Catalina García offer up their unique pop-minded mix of French gypsy jazz, cumbia, bolero, tango and samba during a sold-out Miner Auditorium show.

Additional highlights from the first week of the festival include Thursday’s celebration of the Beatles music with two popular local groups: guitarist Paul Mehling‘s gypsy-jazz focused Hot Club of San Francisco and the virtuoso San Francisco String Trio with guitar great Mimi Fox, violinist Mads Tolling and bassist Jeff Denson playing hits by the Fab Four;  Friday’s concert with New Orleans R&B giant Irma Thomas, Saturday’s sold-out performance by Brazilian jazz-samba pop pioneer Sergio Mendes, a tribute to piano legend Oscar Peterson at Herbst Theatre put together by Bay Area piano talent and Oscar Peterson protégé Benny Green with his fellow pianists Bill CharlapRenee RosnesGerald Clayton and Justin Kauflin and Sunday’s Miner Auditorium performance by local favorite jazz duo Tuck & Patti.  For more on the San Francisco Jazz Festival and ticket information, please visit the SFJAZZ website.

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