I’m afraid I have to do the one thing I loathe: repeat myself.
We. Need. New. Artists. At. Jazz. Festivals.
It’s really beginning to look like what happened with contemporary jazz stations is about to start happening with festivals, and I am really, really not okay with this.
If you’ve forgotten, in 2009-2010, we had a rash of closures that CD101.9 here in NYC has kicked off. It was a dark day for contemporary jazz, because this was only the beginning of a chain reaction that took too many of our stations off the air. As it is, I remember the old CD101.9 of pre-2005 and just before it went off the air, and the difference between the playlists was palpable. The station went from playing a mess of new music from great artists to circulating the same five people each time. It was enough to make me turn it off, even though it was a mainstay of my teen years and the reason why I love jazz in the first place.
But the same thing is happening, though in its own format, with the festivals. It’s been the same headliners time and again.
Look: I. Love. The headliners. I do. They’re great people and amazing musicians. I always enjoy their shows, I love their music, I love and adore capturing their shows on camera. And they’re awesome company to hang out with, and have beautiful families that are a privilege to spend time with.
It’s becoming real repetitive to see the same people on the headliner spot. And it’s a major disservice to both the festivals, the fans, and the genre.
Festivals cannot sustain themselves on the same artists and the same audiences. If there’s no urgency to see an artist because he’s playing the same five fests in the same state within months of each other, why would people bother to buy tickets for it? They wouldn’t. Same thing if the lineups repeat themselves time after time. You will have your loyalists, but you will probably not be attracting new people to the event, because…it’s been the same lineup time and again. Why would people buy tickets for the same time over and over? They. Would. Not. Eventually even the loyalists will ask themselves, “Should I buy this? Same thing over and over.”
And you cannot expect a genre to sustain itself by lathering and rinsing and repeating the same thing and expecting different results. Per Einstein, that’s the definition of insanity.
In the absence of radio stations, barring the troopers who have continued to maintain stations and syndicated shows online, who have talk shows and listening parties – Terri and Michael of Talking Smooth Jazz, you get my hat-tip here for your longevity and your pioneering of new music – the onus of sustaining the genre goes to the promoters of the festivals and the shows nationwide. The way that we know now that someone is up-and-coming and is worth listening to is if they show up in a club in this city or another. The popular launchpads for talent are Spaghettini’s Seal Beach and the Houndstooth Pub. Or DC’s Blues Alley, the iconic locale. SOUTH in Philly is soon to make its way onto that list, I’m sure. But those should not be the only places willing to open their doors to new talent. The promoters now are the gatekeepers of the genre, and while I know their main job is to make a profit, in light of the fact that they’re pretty much the ones who determine the outlook of the genre right now, they should focus less on the short-term profit and a lot more on cultivating and expanding their audience for the long term.
Yes, this means losing money in the short run. But guess what: Better that than penny wise and pound foolish.
We’ve seen this with genre dilution already. West Coast events did their thing with R&B dilution, but they failed to sequester the genres and give them equal weight. This worked for the short-term and put bodies into chairs. OK – but what did it mean for long-term loyalists of the genre? It did not go over well. More than a few comments were left to the effect of, “R&B doesn’t belong at a jazz festival”. And you know what – they’re right! If it’s a tactic to put bodies into seats, it comes with a price: alienating longtime attendees. Not what you want.
I know, seeing as I’m a longtime attendee of Capital Jazz, I may not be one to talk. BUT – go to the fest. Seriously, go to the fest. And you will see two stages. One per genre. One jazz, one soul. And yeah, I am all at the jazz stage, and it’s awesome. And friends of mine are at the soul stage. And because it’s 25,000 people in the Pavilion, we don’t run into one another – which. is. fine. This is a dual-genre fest with no commingling. The cruises, of course, there is always some commingling, but done in such a way that you can have your pick and you do not come out of it disappointed.
Still. Few things infuriate me more than a jazz fest having a lot more of other genres than jazz and then bringing aboard one jazz artist to justify the name. I mean, come on. You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re not blind and we’re not fools. Do not put on an event with jazz in its name with very minimal jazz on the actual menu. Just. Do. Not. Do it.
But I digress.
The fact remains is that no genre of music can or will sustain itself with the same audience and the same offerings time after time after time. It just doesn’t work like that. You cannot expect people to continue coming to see the same show over and over again – eventually, they too will get tired of it. If you want to have a continued survival of any event series, you need variety: in the audience and on stage.
It’s common sense, you’d think, but sadly it isn’t common.
Here’s a hint: check out the sidemen of the headliners for an idea of whom to give a chance! Gail Jhonson has been Norman Brown’s keyboardist for years, but did you hear her band, Jazz in Pink? Probably not. I did, as part of the Getdown Club on the 2014 CapJazz Cruise, and it was great. And her bassist, Robin Bramlett, has a pretty spiffy album of her own. Her harpist – yes, a harpist – Mariea Antoinette. Because why not a jazz harp? And why not Smitty, from Boney James’s band, the bassist? He has a great collection of work. Jay Williams, drummer to everyone who comes through the East Coast. The Grainger brothers, Gary and Greg, who have the Maryland scene on point? Ethan Farmer has been on bass with Lionel Richie forever, but he’s got his own material, and it’s pretty amazing.
And what about the people who had a successful showing in their hometowns and in the launchpads? David P. Stevens. Lin Rountree. Phil Denny. Neamen Lyles needs to play outside of Arizona. Chase Huna is working with Steve Oliver on his debut album at 16 years old. Why not them?
Putting any one or three or four of these guys as openers for the major headliners will not only inject the event lineup with new blood, but it will attract those openers’ families, friends, and existing fanbases, which in turn injects new money and attendees into the events. And as a bonus, there are new careers launched. Who’s to say Generation Next won’t headline a festival in 2-3 years as opposed to them being on the ‘rising star’ showcase?
Right now, I’m waiting to see what will happen with Jazz Fest West. It got shut down, now it’s coming back up. Considering Newport Beach has been going back to an all-jazz or majority-jazz lineup the past few years, I can hope that Omega Events will have the same thing with the revival of JFW.
The point remains the same.
We need new artists. NOW. This isn’t just me railing against it. This is a matter of the entire genre surviving, and it’s a LOT bigger than just my voice and the voices of those who agree and/or do their part to keep it alive.