Music & Nightlife

Will Downing infuses Jazz Fest with soul

After the cancellation of last summer’s Uptown Jazz Festival, which had run for four years, there’s a new smooth jazz festival taking its place on the same weekend in June at the same venue.

R&B/jazz crooner Will Downing, pianist Brian Culbertson, saxophonist Mike Phillips and violinist Karen Briggs will perform Saturday at the rebranded Queen City Jazz Fest at the NC Music Factory’s Uptown Amphitheatre.

We spoke to Downing Monday about the thin line between his two musical styles, his approach toward love songs, and maintaining a 27-year career in a changing industry.

Q. Your music is described as R&B and jazz, but it’s also what you’d hear on the Top 40 in the ’80s when there weren’t as many stylistic distinctions. Where do you feel like you fit?

A. We started doing musical segregation in the ’80s. You started to see old-school R&B, urban adult R&B, classic R&B, new jack R&B. You knew it was only going to get worse. I don’t know where I fit in. Urban adult contemporary jazz R&B? I kind of go back and forth. I walk the line between R&B and jazz. My record before last was considered a jazz record. This one, “Chocolate Drops,” is more R&B than anything. As far as how I’m billed at festivals, I don’t know if there are any true jazz festivals left. The rest are just music festivals. It’s a culmination of a little blues, R&B, traditional jazz, contemporary jazz and what people get is the best of 27 years and 18 albums.

Q. You sing a lot of romantic music. How do you keep it relatable and fresh?

A. Some of the younger writers talk about what they have. “I have 50 cars.” “We can lunch in Paris and have dinner in New York.” OK, right? The songs I sing are from a reality base. (The idea that) what I have is yours. I can’t give you the world. Let’s talk it out. You’re lonely. I need to spend more time with you. I don’t look happy. Maybe you need to spend more time with me. They’re timeless (ideas). There’s nothing new. You aren’t reinventing the wheel. You’re talking about things your audience can relate to. The well never runs dry.

Q. The music business is certainly different than it was in the ’80s. Are you glad you aren’t a new artist trying to break in today?

A. Oh yeah. Not a lot of artists have been around for more than three records these days. My youngest daughter’s 19. She keeps me up on things. One minute somebody’s hot. As soon as I say his name, he’s old-school. It almost reminds me of the teen idols of the ’50s. There’s some kid out with a fresh, new haircut and a new outfit. Oh my God, I love him! A month later there’s another kid coming out with another haircut.

Fortunately, I solidified what I do with the public a long time ago, and they like what it is. I haven’t deviated from the norm. I think that’s been the one thing that’s kept me going and the longevity. I’ve never chased a trend. I’ve always been me.


Queen City Jazz Fest

Will Downing headlines the concert, which also features Brian Culbertson, Karen Briggs and Mike Phillips.

WHEN: 7 p.m. Saturday.

WHERE: Uptown Amphitheatre, 1000 NC Music Factory Blvd.

TICKETS: $43-$68.

DETAILS: 704-916-8970;

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