Miles Davis Jazz Festival opens new Alton Amphitheater

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The Miles Davis Jazz Festival this Saturday, May 16, will be the first event at the new riverfront amphitheater in Alton, Illinois. Located in close proximity to the Clark Bridge, the downtown business district and the Argosy Alton Casino, the amphitheater in Riverfront Park is in an attractive location for all sorts of activities -- so much so that as construction work winds down on the new facility, Mike Drake, executive director of Alton's Park and Recreation Department, says his phone "has been ringing off the hook" with inquiries.

Still, don't expect to see a full schedule of concerts there in the near future.

Drake said the city will be taking it slow with regard to the new amphitheater, which cost about $4.4 million to build and will seat up to 4,000. For one thing, it's not completely finished yet; the construction crew will be working on a "punch list" of final touches right up until Saturday, and possibly even after that.

He's also concerned about maintaining the new facility in good condition once it's up and running. (Construction of the amphitheater -- which was originally scheduled to have been completed in the spring of 2008 -- was delayed for months after engineers working for the city discovered that the welding of the roof sections didn't meet contract specifications.)The amphitheater features the largest and most complex fountain and the largest electrical infrastructure of any public park in Alton, its terraced landscape will be more time-consuming to mow than flat ground, and its riverside location means that flooding is always a possibility. The facility also lacks permanent rest room facilities and the sort of fencing that would be needed for regular ticketed events, Drake says.

Perhaps most important, the city of Alton simply doesn't want to be in the concert promotion business. "Our expertise does not lie in the production of music festivals," Drake says. The city has held informal discussions with several promoters and production companies about booking and managing a concert series at the facility, and he says that a formal request for proposals will go out later this year. In all likelihood, that means that no contract to program a concert series will be in place before 2010.

This year's Miles Davis Jazz Festival moves to the amphitheater from Lewis and Clark Community College in Godfrey, and will be the fourth such annual event paying tribute to the late trumpeter, who was born in Alton and raised in East St. Louis. The festival will feature music from saxophonist Willie Akins, trumpeter Jim Manley, the Alton High School jazz band and drummer Howard Neal's group, who will offer a tribute to the late R&B singer James Ingram, another Alton native. Previous festivals have attracted crowds of 500 to 600 people, a number that Drake said "will be a good learning process" for the city. "We're not expecting capacity crowds. We will definitely learn as we go."

The Miles Davis Jazz Festival takes place from noon to 6:30 p.m. Saturday, May 16. Tickets are $20 in advance, $25 at the gate, $5 for high school students with ID, and can be purchased at Bossanova Restaurant and Lounge in Alton and the Alton Museum of History and Art.

-- Dean C. Minderman

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