THE SMELL OF fresh-cut grass and garlic fries wafted past white tents and port-o-potties in the late-afternoon breeze. On one of the small outdoor stages, local teenagers performed a song and dance routine in matching purple and black outfits. On another, a white dude in sunglasses played the sax. A blue-jean-clad crowd milled around, beers in hand, sunglasses up.
It wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I’d heard “wine-country jazz festival.” But that’s because this was the Sonoma Jazz + Festival, emphasis on the “+” and the “Sonoma.”
In its seventh year, Sonoma Jazz + is a three-day music festival that gathers some top American acts to raise funds for music education programs in local schools. Five days after having returned to the States from Southeast Asia, attending the festival was a greasy-food, blues-cloaked plunge into American culture.
Sonoma—aka, Not Napa—is fifteen miles from its famous neighbor. Michelin stars, celebrity vintners, five-star lodging—it’s all there in Sonoma, but it lacks of glitz and status of Napa — and the politically correct chicness of San Francisco, an hour to the south.
Driving into the town felt like entering an idealized America as seen on TV, complete with SUVs and teenagers on skateboards. Women in spandex walked dogs past pottery boutiques and wine-tasting rooms. Couples held hands on benches in the leafy plaza around the old Sonoma Mission. The white marquee of the Sonoma Theater rose up over the bustling town. I felt like I was on a movie set.
Sonoma Jazz + was held at a local baseball field called Field of Dreams. I arrived early to check out the scene. I was expecting an assortment of local craft vendors, wine-tasting booths, and food stalls that made liberal use of the terms “seasonable,” “sustainable,” and “organic.” I was expecting svelte San Franciscans in riding boots and tailored leather jackets, at least a few heads of well-groomed, graying dreads — and jazz.
There was none of that. True to the un-trendy vibe of Sonoma, Sonoma Jazz + was a compact, to-the-point festival without a lot of pretension. Local vendors appeared to consist of two booths with no beaded jewelry in sight. The “diverse offering of regional foods” the voice on the loudspeaker announced consisted of one stall with a menu of Cajun chicken pasta, Caesar salad, sliders and “killer” garlic fries. A Ben & Jerry’s booth was around the corner.
The crowd that gathered was largely white, middle-aged, and in running shoes. There were lots of moustaches. People walked by with heaps of steaming food on paper plates. They were plumper than in San Francisco. And, unlike Southeast Asia, no one smoked a single cigarette.
I eavesdropped on conversations as I lingered in the afternoon sun. “Have you gotten your tickets for the Rodney Strong Festival?” “Oh, yes, we love that one.” “It was hell getting a sitter tonight.” “We’ve got tickets for all three nights. Jimmy just loves Sheryl Crow.”
A local band played blues-rock, the guitarist pausing between songs to photograph the crowd from the stage. “It’s gonna be a great show tonight, huh?” a smiling woman in a hooded sweatshirt asked me as she passed.
“Um, totally,” I responded, off guard.
I stood in the back of the main event tent as opening act, Tedeschi Trucks Band, began. There was nothing understated or jazzy about the 11-piece blues act, but they were damn good. The singer’s deep, powerful voice rose above horns and guitar chords. It struck me as pure, American music.
An hour intermission gave me plenty of time to duck out and stroll through Downtown Sonoma more. I peered through the window of the Black Bear Diner, where families gathered in booths for the Friday Night Fish Fry, and life-sized wood-carved bears saluted an American flag — the picture of hometown America.
Before the headliner took the stage back at Sonoma Jazz +, the town mayor came on, gave a few stock remarks about the music education programs the festival supported. Then she raised her hands in the air and exclaimed, “Is this going to be the best night in Sonoma EVER?” The crowd cheered, and I shook my head and laughed.
“Oh, aren’t you excited?!” a stocky woman asked, touching my shoulder.
Her grin was infectious. I couldn’t help it; I nodded.
As the headlining act that night, rocker John Fogerty couldn’t have been a more fitting choice for the festival, or for Sonoma. He played a healthy selection of classic CCR hits, and tunes so achingly American it hurt. I caught myself mouthing along.
The crowd, well-lubricated by this point, cheered wildly. A man cupped sun-spotted hands over his mouth and shouted, “We love yooooouuu!!!”
People started dancing, a twitchy shuffle that included a lot of arm pumping and a remarkable lack of rhythm. And they smiled — they laughed and put their arms around one another and sang along to songs we all, it seemed, knew the words to.
These are my countrymen, I thought and smiled.
“He sounds good, huh?” the stocky woman leaned over and yelled into my ear.
And I nodded. ‘Cause he did.