MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – After a covid hiatus, the lights shined bright at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens. Singers and musicians rocked the stage and fans danced like it was a block party during the 2022 Jazz in the Gardens Music Festival. Though the event takes place at the stadium site, the actual concert grounds are on the surrounding property and folks wandered around the venue, food concessions and crafts shops like they were at a family reunion.
The center stage faced a sea of seats that spread wide and long, where music lovers assembled on the afternoons and evenings of Saturday, March 12 and Sunday, March 13. The fest’s 15-year-old spirit drew them back, as a stellar lineup awaited, and the sense of comradery that Black people crave bound the thousands of concertgoers together. It was like a mini city.
Mother nature threw the event a curve ball with a rainstorm between 3 and 4 p.m. The ﬁrst act was supposed to appear at 4:30. It didn’t. The delay meant crowds gathered at the front gates and entry was exceedingly slow. The grumbling stopped as soon as the music started.
Chicago saxophonist Mark Allen Felton warmed up the crowd. SWV (Sisters with Voices) got the partygoers on their feet. When The Roots took the stage, the quality and musicianship went up several levels. Notably, not only was Questlove on the drums, but lead rapper Tariq “Black Thought” Trotter was in top form, and his spontaneous vocals mesmerized the audience. Only the drummer stood still. The tubist, guitarist, bassist and trumpet player pranced around the stage with abandonment. The group is from Philly, but their passionate, lively act and extreme professionalism was so New Orleans. They upped their mojo when rapper T-Pain joined them, encouraging the audience to “Party up!” – in a wonderful blend of rap, soul and jazz fusion.
It’s hard to believe the Isley Brothers’ ﬁrst hit was in 1959 with “Shout.” But there they were on stage, octogenarians delivering hits like the group did back in the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s. “Who’s that Lady” was crooned, “Fight the Power” bellowed out like a call to action and “Between the Sheets” totally seduced the audience. Reminiscing with them was a joy and they hit a real groove with the classic “Living for the Love of You.” The throng of R&B lovers was spellbound. It was enough to make them put down their drinks, fried ﬁsh and conch salads and pay rapt attention.
The lead-up acts were great but, most where there for the headliner, Mary J. Blige. With her band and backup singers split to both sides of the stage, Mary walked to the front to thunderous applause, platinum blonde hair running down her back and flowing behind her. Dressed in a white top, black leather shorts and sequined high-heel boots, she strode around the stage doing her hits. Initially, her act was as tight as a Las Vegas show; choreographed perfectly, musicians in synch and Mary being the hip-hop goddess that she is. The pinnacles of her performance were “Real Love” and “No More Drama.” But there was drama, in the form of a sound malfunction. Mary stopped the show to tell her crew they had to get it right, because “these people have been waiting for me all night.” She took care of her fans.
Saturday’s rainstorm was a thing of the past. Entry at the gate this night was quick and easy, and Mary’s aura still hung over the crowd. Contemporary jazz saxophonist Mike Phillips got the audience into a smooth vibe. Grammy-winning pop/gospel artist Jonathan McReynolds used his silky, uplifting tenor voice to sooth everyone. Stockley, former lead singer for Mint Condition, roused the attendees with a lively show and hits from his new album “Sankofa.”
Rapper and record executive Rick Ross didn’t need a band behind him to get the audience galvanized. With just a DJ and backing tracks he stormed around the stage with his blistering rhymes. Between songs he continued to remind folks that this was home: “I need you to know I grew up a couple of blocks from here … I’m home grown.” He hit a peak with the badass rap “I Got a Chopper in the Car.” He warned: “I’m not a star, somebody lied. I got a chopper in the car, so don’t make it come alive (Yeah).”
All the excitement died down to a whisper when featured artist H.E.R. came on stage. Dressed in a shiny silver smockshirt dress and wearing large sunglasses, she pulled what was left of the late-night audience into her low-key neo soul and mellow realm. Excerpts from her 2021 album “Back of My Mind” dominated her act. Its most popular song, “Damage,” became a singalong. She sang: “Careful what you take for granted, yeah. ‘Cause with me, know you could do damage.” H.E.R.’s coolness comes from an inner place and her flexible voice has allowed her to duet with just about anyone from Daniel Caesar to country western star Chris Stapleton to Khalid. Sounds of her murmuring soulful voice capped the night.
At concert end, festgoers streamed out of the venue where they had listened to hits, danced for hours and communed with others over a couple of days that marked a return to normal. A normal where like-minded music lovers gather to celebrate R&B with hints of jazz, rejoice, and look forward to their next annual sojourn to Miami.