Gene Dobbs Bradford, the new executive director of the Savannah Music Festival, is excited for this year's event, as well as for community outreach to come in the future. GPB's Benjamin Payne reports.

A screenshot from a Zoom interview with Gene Dobbs Bradford, the new executive director of the Savannah Music Festival. He is sitting in his office, wearing a black suit and smiling at the camera.

Gene Dobbs Bradford, the new executive director of the Savannah Music Festival

Credit: Benjamin Payne / GPB News

Mavis Staples, Bruce Hornsby, and the Blind Boys of Alabama are some of the bigger names to grace this year's Savannah Music Festival, which begins Thursday. But there are also plenty of fresh faces — including that of the festival's new executive director, Gene Dobbs Bradford.

“What really drew me to the festival is an eclectic mix of artists who are all really at the top of their game,” said Bradford, who began leading the festival's nonprofit organization just last month. “So many different styles. It's very exciting, and to see these artists in some of the beautiful venues of downtown Savannah is going to be a real treat.”

Bradford, a blues bandleader-turned-impresario, previously led Jazz St. Louis for more than two decades. By the end of his tenure there, Bradford grew the nonprofit's annual budget by nearly tenfold from the time he first took over. Additionally, the nonprofit's education programs reached tens of thousands of area students — a trend Bradford hopes to continue in his new role.

Savannah Music Festival poster art

“We also want to make more people in Savannah — especially diverse audiences — feel more of a connection with the festival,” said Bradford, who is the Savannah Music Festival's first Black executive director. “And I think that's something that we can do by engaging more members of the community and thinking very, very intentionally about how we can do presentations that are going to draw in a more diverse audience.”

Bradford said he hopes to partner with other local organizations to “extend the festival experience” well beyond its typical two-week period — for example, funding residencies in which musicians could teach students, as well as connect with adults “so that when the festival time comes, they actually have a connection to the artists there.”

As for this year's artists, the lineup hits just about every note on the wide range of musical styles out there — from a folk guitar group formed in the Sahara Desert, to a mandolin duo performing Beethoven, to an accordionist out of Colombia.

All concerts are ticketed, except for a free showcase of young local jazz musicians on Friday, April 8, at Rousakis Plaza along the Savannah River. 

More free outdoor shows may be in store for future festivals, as Bradford said that he and his team are considering putting on concerts at Savannah's iconic public squares.

With this year's youth jazz showcase featuring students from the festival's own after-school jazz program, it hints at what may be key to the festival's long-term growth.

Referring to the educational programs at Jazz St. Louis, Bradford said, “That's where we saw some of the greatest growth, because people saw us not just as a presenter of music putting great art on stage, but as an active member of the community doing things that are directly beneficial for the students of our area.

“Those are the things that I think really propelled us, and that's what I hope that we can bring here to Savannah.”