On Jazz Fest West’s cancellation

Update: In light of this, plus other festivals going the same route, I decided that I’ll be much more selective about where my money goes. Enough already.

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.


ETA: Another festival in CA went nearly all-R&B. Oh yeah, I blew a gasket.


15 thoughts on “On Jazz Fest West’s cancellation

  1. Bravo, KG!!! You hit the nail on the head. I could *never* get enough of the live performances of: Brian Culbertson, Oli Silk, Gerald Albright, Boney James, Peter White, Kirk Whalum, Elan Troutman, Brian Simpson, Norman Brown, Eric Darius, Chris Standring, Michael Lington, Jeff Golub, Lin Rountree, Najee, Vincent Ingala, Jonathan Fritzen, Darren Rahn, Euge Groove, Jackiem Joyner, Richard Elliot, Jessy J, Mindi Abair, Jeff Lorber, Paul Brown, Rick Braun, Nicholas Cole, Dave Koz, Lebron, Nathaniel Kearney, Jr., Darryl Williams, Eric Valentine, Chieli Minucci, Keiko Matsui, Joyce Cooling, Acoustic Alchemy, Nils, U-Nam, Spyro Gyra, Alex Bugnon…

    1. And that right there could be the lineup to a sellout fest – without the need of adding the likes of Ne-Yo and Charlie Wilson!
      Capital Jazz is the half-and-half fest, and that’s how I like it — but ONLY Capital Jazz. California festivals have a deluge of up-and-coming stars of contemporary jazz; there’s no need whatsoever to R&B it out.

      1. We have a Jazz & Rib festival here in Cowtown and bless their hearts the folks who put it together have found a way to resist the temptation to water it down by inviting a lot of non-jazz artists (and the resultant non-jazz audience). I love a good jazz festival, but I want to see REAL jazz, not that fake crap. Thanks for sharing the thoughts, K.G.

  2. In SoCal, we have the top C- jazz venue voted by our peers, Spaghettini, with all the artists listed above, almost every night in an intimate climate controlled, indoor environment with tickets selling for $15-$30. Morongo Casino in Palm Springs has big C-Jazz names for free sponsored by The WAVE radio station once a month. We also have at least five C-Jazz Pro Jams from L.A. to San Diego that all the greats show up for free. And lets remember, we no longer have a Contemporary Jazz radio station that would normally be playing all these artists music, not to mention breaking new artists which would grow the fan base who is rapidly aging and less likely to brave the heat and discomfort of the typical outdoor festival. Correct me if I’m wrong. Since our only Contemporary Jazz radio station has gone mostly R&B it stands to reason that promoters who have to advertise need to advertise to the market the radio station targets. I for one have been forced to subscribe to XM Radio just to be able to listen to a strict contemporary Jazz format. But they take no advertising. Thats why you have to subscribe. I have been a producer and promoter of C-Jazz events and found them extremely costly to promote since there is no go to radio station here that isn’t predominately R&B. And lets face it, although the two genres would be considered in radio terms cross-over, the fanbase isn’t.

    1. I get my radio from Denver; K-High. Radio, jazz radio specifically, has gone the way of the Dodo bird, and unfortunately, terrestrial radio may be on its way out altogether. Subscription is the way to get the music, but then, how to promote the shows? Social media has been the sole lifeblood for a lot of musicians. It’s dismal that that’s what it has come to.

      Also, I will not hesitate in putting some of the blame at the foot of the very same radio stations – the few that play the contemporary jazz music – in the lack of breaking new audiences in as well as new music blood. There is a lot of new artist blood of the 40-and-under age group, and there’s a way to reach the fans of the same age, but the problem is, the radio stations are still relying on the same artists and the same audiences. Those new people have no exposure to C-jazz because there’s little to no promo for them – or for people they’re trying to bring into the genre – because the radio stations just won’t do it. And this helps no one.

      The fanbase needs to be catered to first. I’m glad you bring up Spaghettini’s, because it’s the one place I’d happily kill a lot of money to visit, but I almost never could manage to make a trip work with my schedule. Spags has been crucial in the jazz world, but we need a LOT more places around the country like Spags.

      It makes me think about opening a similar club here on the East Coast but…capital. Time. Location.

  3. Thanks for this!
    Jazz radio died the same slow death that festivals are now experiencing. I would hope promoters of these events see the trend. Adult contemporary/ R&B-soul genres, tend to share much of the same listening audience. The person who loves Najee/ Gerald Albright, will more than likely love Baby Face and/or Luther Vandros. At some point however, smooth jazz radio stations began playing more R&B, and less jazz. The jazz they did play became formulaic, and the pioneers and heavy hitters conformed musically to that commercial formula. To add to it, only a few artists were ever allowed to break through and get continual airplay. indie artists, or lesser known artists were not given the opportunity to be heard. This left us basically with a bunch of predictable, watered down R&B, easy listening background stations, that lost their original appeal. That original edge that Smooth Jazz offered when it first aired. Listenership fell off, stations died out, but people still hungry for jazz knew they could experience it Live. Over time, the same thing has happened. No new artists getting press or opportunities, only the same handful of people who were on radio, and who made it in, are still performing. R&B has taken over the festivals, leaving sparsely attended audiences for the “jazz” portion of the “jazz festival”, and the same thing that happened to radio, is now happening to the fests as a result…. Hope this can change.

    1. The only way this can change is if we, the fans, start speaking out very vociferously about what we expect on our radio and in our festivals. Nothing happens if there isn’t enough outcry. But the problem is, far too many people across the board are just kind of shrugging and saying, “This is what it is” – it doesn’t have to be! Not at all! Just because this is what it looks like on the outside doesn’t mean it can’t change. Time is a great catalyst and maybe it’s just me, but we haven’t seen the best of smooth jazz yet.

      I may speak for a small portion of my peers, the late twenties-early thirties set, but eventually, they all get tired of the Miley Cyruses and the Lady Gagas and they want something a little quieter, a little different, a little sexier – and that’s where smooth jazz comes in. But someone has to appeal to them. Somehow. Someone has to say and do something that will show them that this world actually exists. Radio used to do that – but now that it isn’t there, we need to find some other way to get through to a new crowd. And those ways DO exist. We just need to figure out what they are and use them. I don’t relate to my peers, but usually, whomever I bring into the jazz world tends to stay there.

      But we do need to speak out to the festivals and tell them exactly what and whom we want. Capital Jazz makes it a point to poll its audience and cater to them, but not every festival is Capital Jazz. Still, every festival can take a page out of the CapJazz book by polling its audience. Even if they write in the same ten people, they can go, “Hey, if someone likes Euge Groove and Richard Elliot (tenor saxes) we can have Vincent Ingala or Phil Denny on the bill too and they’d like it”. Not hard at all. Or, if someone is a trumpet fan, they can say, “Rick Braun can have X spot, but let’s also have Lin Rountree or Willie Bradley”. Again, not hard. But we, the fans, need to speak out, and call out the festivals that aren’t delivering. No one likes being criticized, but silence had never wrought good changes.

  4. Agree with all previous comments. Right on !!! We live in the southwest and over the years have seen 3 smooth jazz radio stations turn into C&W formats overnight with no warning. You think you’ve accidentally changed the station, but then you realize you didn’t. Very sad. I decided to go XM… Thank you Watercolors… You’re always there. However, we were shocked to listen in to Watercolors during a time slot and hear some R&B Rap. What !!! I wrote the station and they went back to a true smooth jazz format. I’m really glad that I spoke up. We used to attend several southwest smooth jazz concerts, but dropped off when the promoter added a number of R&B artists… Again, R&B is a fine genre, but we travel specifically to see smooth jazz. Don’t know why smooth jazz doesn’t command the audiences of Robin Thicke or Miley Cyrus… There’s alot of baby boomers out there…. But it doesn’t. A few years ago we went to an amazing smooth jazz festival in Denver at Fiddlers Green with the best lineup ever. Even for Denver, it was not sold out… only about 50% capacity. I think that we attended the last year that that festival was held… So sad. We would really love to go again. On a happy note, we did again get back our local smooth jazz station again (the Oasis)… and that station has been very proactive in bringing great smooth jazz artists back to our area. We are so grateful and hope they stay “on the air” forever !!! We love them !!!

    1. Thank YOU Larry for speaking out! We need to speak out more, all of us. Nothing happens if no one speaks out. NYC has been without a jazz station since 2008, and the Smooth Jazz New York cruises alone show the genre still commands an audience. At the Blue Note, I routinely see people my age showing up for Spyro Gyra, Fourplay… We NEED! a station. NEED IT.

  5. We many never know the true reason the “Jazz Fest West” was canceled, but I will say it’s not because it’s not truly a jazz festival. To be honest, the only true jazz festival in Southern California is the Playboy Jazz Festival. The word “jazz” is over used. I’ve attended The Jazz Fest West at least 15 times over the years dating back to Pasadena and there is no lack of people! If people have grown tired of this not being real jazz as the article reads, you’d never know it by the attendance. And by the way, if Chaka Khan wanted to sing jazz, she could, trust me on that one.

    1. I’m certain that she could, and as I mentioned, I love her music.She’s a legend, yes, she draws numbers, yes, but that headliner space could’ve easily been, say Dianne Reeves. Or Patti Austin. Both of them have an excellent fanbase worldwide. Having Chaka on the lineup makes the entire festival come off as, “Hey, come see Chaka Khan! and these other people” – when quite a lot of folks would come out exactly for the other people.

      I will agree that you’ll have the numbers with the new lineup. Far be from me to deny that you WILL have the attendance. But look at the faces. How many regulars stopped going because it became more R&B’d? Newport Beach had a great thing happening with the second stage, where they’d put on up-and-coming artists. Whether or not that’s still the case for Newport Beach, I do not know, but I do know that with the lineup being what it is, traveling jazz-chasers like myself are hard-pressed to fly over for it.

      If this article came off as “real jazz vs. not” – that was not my intention. My intention was to put an emphasis on the fact that diluting a jazz lineup with R&B is counterproductive to the jazz genre, whatever you define it to be. And R&B does not equal jazz. Contemporary jazz is already seen as a dirty word with jazz purists since the dawn of time, and that’s been an eternal uphill battle to climb. But if it’s important to keep contemporary jazz alive and in the eyes of the public after the grand radio shutdowns of 2009, diluting the lineup with R&B does not help. It helps short-term – keeps the festival attendance up – but long-term benefits are few. The R&B fans will expect more R&B and won’t attend if the lineup gets “re-jazzed”, and jazz aficionados would’ve been turned off by R&B in the first place, and would be hard-pressed to come back. The long-term effect would outweigh the short-term attendance boost.

      I see Berks in PA get packed to the rafters for two weeks without a single trace of R&B dilution in sight. If that can happen in the Pennsylvania suburbs, then it can certainly happen in Cali.

      1. Kat, I agree with you when you say “diluting a jazz lineup with R&B is counterproductive to the jazz genre…” but, I don’t see the jazz artist turning down the gig. I know they have famailies to feed and bills to pay, so go to work, I get all of that; however, IMO, the mixing of the genres is a good thing. I still don’t know why a sold out concert was canceled, that’s the bottom line.

  6. There is a lot more to it in regards to putting on a successful festival….sorry to say promoters look at pollstar numbers to book acts and will crossover to other genres to fill the seats…you really can’t blame them…they are taking a considerable risk putting on a festival….and if the the festival isn’t a brand draw on it’s own…like CapJazz or JazzTrax which were mentioned…it is simply a financial risk to put one on…JazzFest West does not have brand draw like these other festivals are…that maybe Omega’s fault or not… unfortunately, the boomers (I am one) are not going out to live festivals as much…VIP costs, travel and weather have a lot do with it…frankly the sell out venues for the A-list performers remain the sold out cruises…much more to the liking of the well-heeled contemporary jazz fan…Brian Culbertson is trying to repeat that model on land at the Napa Valley Jazz Getaway and I wish him the best in creating that brand in wine country…you see mixed genres festivals coming along to fill the seats and trying to pull a younger crowd….but the younger crowd is still involved in pop and EDM…not much interest in the music that moves us….as an independents in contemporary jazz…we have put on our own concerts in Northern California as there are no venues that will pay you….it is still pay to play….so building a fan base takes time, talent and MONEY if you have nowhere to expose your A -list players…and..well, I am long past schlepping gear to bars….Pat Britton…independent contemporary jazz musician

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