Umbria Jazz

The better-known Umbria Jazz Festival is in Perugia in July. Orvieto’s contribution to the music scene, however, is between Christmas and New Year.

Winter might not seem like the best season for a festival, but I personally would prefer to be wandering from one people-filled site to another when there’s a bit of a nip in the air, rather than when you’re so drained from the unrelenting July heat that the very thought of sitting anywhere near another human makes you wish you’d chosen to live life as a hermit.  For me, winter is just about perfect.

Unfortunately, because December is a busy time for us in the U.S., we have not been to Orvieto’s Umbria Jazz since 2007-2008. But we had such a great time and it plays such an important role in the town’s holiday season, that I felt I really should share some of my highlights with you.

First of all, we’ve found that Italian towns tend to not go overboard in the Christmas light department. The streets are decorated, but you would never mistake them for a Las Vegas casino. If you absolutely adore American-style lighting, you might consider Orvieto’s subdued. Personally, I call it tasteful.

Orvieto's understated Christmas lights, with Torre del Moro's clock in the background, looking like a full moon.

Should you want to plan your travels around Umbria Jazz, you should check for the exact timing on-line because it seems there are no hard and fast dates. I think everyone’s happy as long as it begins soon after Christmas and ends sometime after the big New Year’s Eve festivities…..with “soon” and “sometime” being rather fluid terms.  Remember: this is Italy, not Switzerland.

The weather in 2007 was mostly gray and drab, but that didn’t stop the town from filling every possible venue with music. Large restaurants set up stages at one end of their dining rooms. Small bars had small groups playing in a corner. Palazzo del Popolo – the town’s main public building – opened all of the rooms that are usually used for conferences. And of course, the magnificent Duomo and the beautifully ornate Teatro Mancinelli were fully booked with groups that could take advantage of their incredible acoustics.

Keisha Jackson and her large group performing on a large stage at a lunch concert in a large restaurant.

Small group playing in the small Vin Caffe -- my favorite go-to place for the best small plates and great wines.

There were Dixieland jazz bands and modern jazz bands.…instruments-only groups and groups with great vocalists.…a band mobile enough to march through the streets and others that needed specific spaces for their unusual equipment. A great majority of the musicians came from the U.S., but that isn’t to say there weren’t a number of Italian groups. For instance, the 15-member roving band that magically appeared at various times around the town was Italian, as was the band that played a great omaggio (tribute) to Ray Charles in the Teatro Mancinelli.

The roving band.

The Italian Ray Charles omaggio. Notice the beautiful interior of the Teatro Mancinelli.

Performances could be at any hour of the day or night, and ticket availability reflected this. For example, tickets for a Sunday lunch show were hard to come by, while those for a 12:30 A.M. show in a Palazzo del Popolo conference room were very easy.

Then came New Year’s Eve. Much to our dismay, we found out too late that all of the restaurants were completely booked with people having their cenone di Capodanno or big New Year’s Eve dinner. The one night we should have been eating out turned out to be the one night we ate in our apartment. Since we had very little food available, our cenone turned out to be a meager salad. Fortunately, our home wine supply was not meager.

We knew that there was going to be a free outside concert in the Piazza del Popolo after midnight, and Keisha Jackson was going to be the highlight, so around 11:30 we drifted back to the streets to see what was going on.  It was as if Orvieto had been invaded by hordes of cheerful people.  The Corso Cavour and Via del Duomo were packed with strolling folks of all ages, greeting everyone they met with auguri (best wishes) and buon anno (happy New Year).

We ventured into the crowded Piazza del Popolo just before midnight. The scene was something we would never see in the U.S.  People had brought along their own fireworks and felt free to set them off whenever the spirit moved them. True, they weren’t big fireworks, but when you see someone with a open champagne bottle under his arm lighting a rocket that then careens off the side of one of the surrounding buildings, it makes a safety-conscious American feel that she should perhaps take cover under the concert stage. But we could tell by the calm reaction from the rest of the crowd that this was exactly what they expected to be happening on New Year’s Eve. They seemed to take comfort that there were a couple of vigili del fuoco (firemen) standing around watching, just in case one of the rockets lit up someone’s hair instead of the sky.

And speaking of champagne bottles, we felt like we were half-dressed for the celebration since we were the ONLY people in the throng without at least one. However, during the whole night we saw only 1 person who had obviously had too much to drink. Being publicly drunk is considered brutta figura (bad form or looking like a fool), and that phrase is something no Italian ever wants attached to his/her name.

After a half hour of these small-but-potentially-lethal fireworks, the stage lit up and the 15-man roving Italian band came out to start the concert. They played for about 1-1/2 hours, by which point our feet had turned into blocks of ice on the bottom of our legs, despite the layers of socks we were wearing. A Belgian block piazza in winter is the exact opposite of a heated bathroom floor. However, Alan, the always clever problem solver, found that the cables for the stage electronics were covered with a wood shield, and standing on that made all the difference in the world.

It was 2 a.m. when Keisha Jackson, her singers and band finally came on stage, and by that time, everyone was ready to rock. It was FABULOUS!!! She sang till about 4:30, and even then no one wanted to go home. It was by far my best New Year’s Eve ever!

An out-of-focus Keisha Jackson and her group in the cold for a great New Year

I’ll leave you with 2 thoughts on music:

  1. All of these venues were small which allowed us to experience the process of making music up close. Almost as much fun as hearing the music itself was seeing the respect and enjoyment the musicians felt toward their brethren. There are so many talented people in the world, and so few of them ever become household names. But talented people recognize the hard work and discipline of their fellow musicians and it added to our delight to see the joy in their faces when listening to each other.
  2. Keisha Jackson and her group sang all of the great American female songs: “R-E-S-P-E-C-T”, “Simply the Best”, “I Say a Little Prayer for You”, “Stop in the Name of Love”, “Proud Mary”….you get the idea. “Respect” was a hit for Aretha Franklin in 1967 – 40 years before this particular concert. We were packed in among hundreds of young people, whose high school English was about as good as your high school French or Spanish. And yet they knew EVERY word to all of these songs. If ever you doubt the value and universality of music, go to a rock concert in another country. They might have a lot of songs in their native language, but you just know that sometime during the show, English will be sung, and everyone will be able to sing along.


When we left Orvieto in 2007, we went to Torino for a couple of days, where I found my very most favorite street decorations ever. I thought I’d share a few of those photos with you, too.

Torino -- Birds stringing a ribbon down the street.

Torino -- Constellations in the sky.

Torino -- A street light decorated for the holidays.

Torino -- Italian phrases overhead.

And finally, my favorite. Walking down this street felt like I was in Wonderland.

I wish all of you a wonderful holiday season, whether you’re celebrating Christmas, Hanukkah, or Festivus for the Rest of Us. And let’s all hope 2012 won’t be nearly as bad as we expect it to be.


One thought on “Umbria Jazz

  1. LOVE LOVE LOVE the photos – especially the last one with the blue globes! Well done, Susan. And, I hope you and Alan have a wonderful holiday, and a happy and healthy new year.

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