It hit my news feed not too long ago. Three weeks to go time. And while it’s unfortunate, I kind of knew it was going to happen.
Yes, jazz festivals are struggling. Even in Southern Cali, which is jazz country. However, there’s a slightly bigger player here: the festival promoters. In this case, Omega Events. And there’s a something I have a quibble with as far as Omega goes.
What I notice about the Omega Events festivals, especially JFW, is the lineup. In fact, I can’t quite call that a “jazz” festival, since the majority of the artists scheduled were R&B. The same thing was with Newport Beach Jazz Fest, which got taken over by Omega Events as well. Don’t get me wrong, I love R&B. I love Chaka Khan’s music. But please explain to me in what realm she’s considered jazz.
One festival that comes to mind that had successfully pulled off the jazz-R&B balance, and that’s Capital Jazz Fest here on the East Coast. And it’s wildly successful, there’s over 20,000 attendees there every year. Hell, there were more people this year than last year, and “packed” doesn’t cover it. Two separate stages, two genres, but enough going on so that people can see both and enjoy across the board. What I’ve seen with the Omega fest lineups, especially after Scott Pedersen was no longer in charge at Newport, was that they began R&B-ing out their lineups to a heavy degree, with none of the split, to where calling it a jazz fest anymore is a stretch.
Though I completely get why a promoter would want to do that, it doesn’t quite work. In fact, with those people who love the jazz genre and, like me, are willing to travel for it, it has a completely opposite effect to what was intended.
I understand that they want to draw people who like R&B as well as jazz and pad the attendance numbers, but what about the people who like jazz already? How do they feel if, instead of Dianne Reeves (just as an example) they get Fantasia? Nothing against Fantasia; she has a lovely voice, but she is decidedly not a jazz singer. Not by any stretch of the imagination. Those people who like jazz already now see this R&B’d lineup and feel that the festival had lost its touch. If they bought tix in advance, they may feel cheated. Would they still attend the fest? No. They wouldn’t. Because they feel that the R&B’d-out lineup takes away from the jazz.
Let’s make this plain: either you have a majority jazz lineup, or you stop calling it a jazz festival. Let’s call spades what they are. If you have a 50-50 balance, like CapJazz, then okay, I see that working, and the way they make it work is with the artists they invite, too. The jazz stage at Cap is packed to the gills every year, and so is the R&B/soul stage, but they are very, very careful to strike a good balance with the lineup in order to keep that. Jazz Fest West did not strike that balance this year.
Don’t get me wrong: I like soul and I enjoy R&B – to an extent – but I am a die-hard jazz lover first and foremost, and if a lineup has no appeal to me apart from people whom I can see much closer than CA, then I won’t bother getting on the plane. I definitely got turned off I saw the lineup for Newport Beach Jazz Fest 2013 and hadn’t come back since, even though in CA, it’s one of my favorite spots. Having seen the lineup for Capital Jazz that same year, I figured that if I want to see a half-R&B lineup, I’d rather go to Maryland on a $40 roundtrip bus than kill precious airline miles or my budget in flying cross-country. Cross-country flights are about $500 on average, and that’s not money I want to spend lightly. If I’m going cross-country, it has to be for a good reason. And to me, a jazz festival that’s gone R&B halfway is not reason enough, especially if I can go closer to home for that. Sorry, but not sorry. If I want a half-and-half fest, then I already have my fill: CapJazz delivers that twice a year, and there’s enough jazz and soul on both the cruise and the fest to keep me engaged all around.
And SoCal is not, I repeat is not, Capital Jazz. Nor should it be. For something that could well be called Jazz Country, it’s certainly not delivering. Let Capital Jazz be the ones who can do a half-and-half genre lineup; they mastered it and they are superbly versed at making it a success. There is only one Capital Jazz Festival – and it ought to stay that way. If CA is jazz country, then let’s see some jazz – key word jazz – festivals.
One of the best things about the Southern California music world, which kept me coming back, is that contemporary jazz is in abundance. Compared to the rest of the country, Cali jazz is doing great. More than half of the top musicians in the contemp-jazz world are all CA residents. And believe you me, it’s 100% possible to do a successful, rowdy all-jazz festival with them. After all, JazzTrax fests pull it off to fantastic effect; Newport Beach under Scott Pedersen pulled it off, the Thornton Series are amazingly well-attended. In NoCal, Brian Culbertson has his getaway in Wine Country. It’s possible. It’s doable. And if folks like me, who love that music, are looking at longtime jazz fests and seeing that calling it jazz with the current lineup is a stretch, or if there’s too many of the same people popping up too soon between fests, then they simply won’t attend.
And that’s how the chain reaction starts. Low ticket sales, with regulars not coming back, may cause sponsors to pull out. Which in turn collapses the festival.
There’s one great thing that Capital Jazz does: they poll the attendees. Every cruise, I’ve gotten an email survey that asks me whom I want to see next. And the best part is that they actually go and do that! Most artists whom people mentioned has made it to the cruise or to the fest stages. I know I put in Michael Franks’s name down in 2012 or so, and apparently, it was a suggestion other people had too, because he was at the jazz stage this year. Jeanette Harris, Elan Trotman, David P. Stevens – I’m sure all of them were mentioned in at least one post-cruise survey, and they all made it aboard the ship.
You may argue that that’s too much legwork, but it’s necessary legwork. This is why Capital Jazz is one of the biggest festivals nationwide, with growing success, and a split lineup between jazz and soul/R&B. Because they invest that time to see what their patrons want.
Folks, the lineup is the determining factor for every festival. That’s what determines your attendance numbers. Go directly to the people on the ground to see what they would like to have in future lineups, and you are going to be that much closer to a successful event as a result.