Shout out: Smooth Jazz for Scholars

If you are a jazz fan and don’t know about Jay Rowe’s Smooth Jazz for Scholars, you probably should.

jay rowe
Jay Rowe, at last years Smooth Jazz for Scholars. Photo by yours truly.

Here’s the back story, kids.

Jay Rowe is the keyboardist for Special EFX, as well as a lot of other people. If I had to list his entire curriculum vitae, I’d probably be typing all night, so I’ll just spare you that and keep it at he’s really damn good at what he does and I’m sure you’ve seen him before. And for the past 13 years, he’s been holding an annual concert to benefit the music program in the public schools of Milford, CT.


Some not very many years ago, this event got so popular that it expanded to two nights. And the lineup just keeps getting better. Best part – you never know who will be invited until Jay Rowe announces it.

Well, here’s the deal this year, for the 14th anniversary event:

Peter White, Marion Meadows, Brian Simpson and Matt Marshak

Nick Colionne, Chieli Minucci, Eric Darius and Nelson Rangell.

Yes, you look at this and you think, “Well, it’s the same people as usual”. Yes, seems that way, but for this event – no. No it’s not.

Meadows, Minucci, and Rangell are the only people who can be counted on to return year in and year out, for multiple reasons. Marion Meadows is currently involved with Project Music in his hometown of Stamford, CT, which, among many things, provides kids with music lessons after school. Nelson Rangell – those of you who know, love, and remember his Turning Night Into Day album know just what he can do, and his current work is a continued credit to his style and ability, and he’s someone whom I only ever see at this event. I don’t see many Nelson Rangell performances advertised anymore, which is a crying shame, because truly…a sound like his is rare as all get-out. Chieli Minucci – if you don’t know who this guy is, I can’t help you. If you want to know, find out for yourself.

But everyone else rotates year to year. I don’t think I’ve yet seen Brian Simpson at that event just yet – to note, I started attending in 2011 – and Eric Darius is another new face, though I have a pretty clear memory of him at Berks in 2010 and he has only improved in his stage presence and sound since. You guys know I’m a major supporter of Matt Marshak, and this is Matt’s first go at Scholars that I can recall. Nick’s last go at this gig was 2014. And Nick and Eric together… party o’clock, people. Party the hell o’clock! in the best ways.

You probably remember my jaw being on the ground when Jackiem Joyner took the stage last year and completely blew everyone away. Well, that’s what this event is. You don’t know who’ll spontaneously combust. You don’t know who might walk out onstage as a surprise.

Here’s an even better perspective for you. A standard California two-day event, if you’re out of town, will cost you, inclusive of flight, hotel, meals, tix, and transit, close to $1,750.

Now consider this:
– You can fly into Bradley Airport in New Haven, or into NYC and take MetroNorth to Milford. Late April is still not tourist season, and you’re likely to get pretty decent flights.
– The local Hampton Inn in Milford offers a special rate for the event, and the special rate is more than reasonable.
– The venue, the Parsons Complex, sits within about three blocks’ walk from the Milford train station and on the opposite side of the train overpass, there’s a pretty hopping downtown area with plenty of restaurants for pre-game and after-party.
– And again… the tickets are $70 for both nights.

If you’re out of town or not on the East Coast altogether, you can, very very reasonably, attend the entire event for under a grand, depending on your flight costs.

Yes, I’m serious.

Think about it.

More info at:

General admission tix at:

Who knows? I just might see you there.



I guess I have to say this again.

I’ve said it early last year with my post about needing new artists. 

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.


Jazz Fest West is Coming Back

You may or may not have read about it when it went under in this post.

Well, kids, it’s back. 

Here’s the thing. I’m actually pretty happy that Omega has decided to give the fest another shot. Why? Because in light of the unbridled fiasco that was BTW Concerts, we definitely need more events. I don’t know very much about the way Omega Events operates, but I have received pretty good reports. My quibbles with their lineups aside – the whole jazz/R&B commingling – I’ve yet to hear anything about Omega that was overall disconcerting. No one got sold tickets for seats that didn’t exist, and so on. Artists are treated decently. The only quibble I hear about most commonly is that it’s outside on the hottest days in Cali – but then again, I’ve gotten roasted to a fine crisp in late May in Newport Beach before, so I’ll take it as par for the course.

After the fiasco that was the Arizona Jazz Fest collapse, we need to have more music in the West/Southwest area. There is a void in the market that was left by the collapse of AZ and the hiatus – I guess we can call it – of JFW.

My one concern is this: who will be on the lineup of Jazz Fest West?

The reason it didn’t happen that time was because of lousy ticket sales. Considering Robin Thicke was the headliner – gimme a damn break, seriously? He is not jazz! – I’m not surprised at all. I have seen the Omega festivals take a decidedly jazzier slant as of 2015, though, and have hopes that there will be a good representation of jazz artists in their comeback lineup.

But I really cannot say this enough: JFW and all of the West Coast events need to give new artists adequate representation. We all know Boney James puts butts into seats. We know. And we love him, here on the East Coast too. But there needs to be a little room for the new artists as well. You can’t expect a genre to survive if you’re recycling the same lineup over and over again. This is what made radio stations lose listeners after Broadcast Architecture had its way; there’s absolutely no need to have the same thing happen with festival lineups.

Berks is a great example. Yes, there’s a ton of established artists, but the locals definitely get their bite at the apple as well. The new kids get their bite too. There’s no losing lineup at Berks. Yes, sometimes they have a soul artist or two, but it is a 90% jazz festival and upholds the genre title. But above all – it. allows. new. artists. in.

And the West Coast events need to take a page out of the Berks book in that respect. Spaghettini’s cannot be the only stage where artists like David P. Stevens and Phil Denny get in front of the West Coast audience.

You can’t expect a genre to get new audiences without new artists. Nor can you expect it to retain its current audience without variety. Stagnation doesn’t work for any genre, and a genre as dynamic as jazz cannot be allowed to stagnate.

Speaking of BTW/Arizona Jazz Fest, there are some news on that respect too, but that’s for a separate blog post.


And this, ladies and gents, pisses me off.

Jazz is tied with classical as the least popular genre in the US.

The sound you hear is my rising blood pressure, but I truly wish I could say anything but that this is not news to me.

Classical music has been enduring for over 400 years, and you know what, it still has an audience. Hell, it has an audience that I’m willing to bet is at least partially younger than jazz – and why? Because parents who understand the value of classical music teach it to their kids, and the kids carry that on.

Jazz is growing to have a similar situation in its New Audience acquisition. Parents, especially parents who themselves have grown up appreciating and knowing the value of jazz, pass it onto their kids, who grow up to be jazz lovers in turn.

Yes, that’s great, but it’s also a hugely dismaying thing to have. While jazz has always been a niche, this basically insulates it from outside fans coming in on their own. Lack of radio doesn’t help, but I’ve waxed analytical about that before. This is crippling.

Why? Because look at what doesn’t require enjoyment by inheritance. Look at the styles of music that are currently popular, and tell me that it doesn’t demonstrate something to you about the general population. What does it say about the audience when they’d rather listen to manufactured Autotune than they would listen to music that, let’s face it, doesn’t require Autotune? Right now, people get into music by having it pushed onto them ad nauseum, and if it takes five writers and three sound engineers to record Nicki Minaj singing “You’re a stupid hoe” or something similar and have that be a hit, but a jazz – oh, no, I’m sorry, instrumental pop as certain committees dubbed it – song can’t even get the time of day in the mainstream, what does that tell you about the state of music?

Let’s not wave it off with “This is the way it is”. It got this way. It didn’t have to get this way. Classical has endured, and jazz – the American classical – needs to endure too.

Perhaps this is my opinion, but I find that people’s ears have grown lazy with this manufactured sound-machine known as “pop music” of the day. They’re getting lazy and they’re getting complacent as a result. If they don’t have to think, they never will. Just like kids in school would ask the teacher, “What do you want me to say?” on an opinion essay, right now people are not even bothering to ask themselves, “What am I listening to?” Their ears are lazy. The music is manufactured and produced in such a way that they don’t have to listen to the message it sends as long as it’s catchy and has a rhythm (hence why music with absolutely despicable lyrics is popular), and they don’t listen into it to hear anything of the person singing it. Chances are the person singing it wouldn’t even come close to sounding like they do on the recording if they were to sing it in person, but that’s beside the point. The point is, people got used to not thinking about their music, and they hear it without actually listening to it.

And you know something? Jazz requires active listening! It doesn’t need “understanding”, or “the right notes”, as one particularly imbecilic video put it (sorry but not sorry), but it requires active listening. It requires someone to not just hear it, but to take some time and listen to it, listen into it, let it talk to the ear. Right notes have never once been a requirement of it, but some participation on the listener part is. It’s a music style that, much like classical, and much like instrumental rock, speaks without words. But you have to actually listen to it.

And when your listeners forget how to listen, then you see a sharp decline in popularity.

Doesn’t help that the advertisers who have previously invested copious funds in jazz stations have taken their money elsewhere because “it’s not popular” without thinking that the radio stations aren’t helping in the matter by homogenizing the lineup into an unpalatable mess, doesn’t help that the radio station formats have flipped en masse because “listenership has dropped” – when they themselves have engineered this drop in listenership – and certainly doesn’t help that too many people in the US don’t even know what jazz is. The video of “just play the right notes!” sums up the average view of jazz succinctly, and it’s the sort of viewpoint that drives me to drink.

Interestingly, if and when I introduce someone to jazz, the reaction is nearly always, without fail, “I had no idea this is what it’s like!”

At risk of sounding crass, no shit!!! This is what happens when you hear something without actually listening to it; you forget what it’s like to actually listen, and you’re amazed at what you hear when you re-discover it again.

Outside the US, we don’t see such an attitude with jazz music at all. Japan is a hugely popular market for American jazz. Eastern Europe is also jumping on the bandwagon. We’ve seen the massive popularity of Mallorca Jazz Fest and Smooth Jazz Augsburg. Don’t tell me there’s no market for jazz; there is. But then again, outside the US, people are taught to actively listen into music, and understand it.

Huge, massive difference in education and, even apart from education, in thinking.

And of course, the R&B dilution at events, to where it’s not even possible to call it a jazz event anymore, is not helping matters either.

Don’t even have to go too far for an example, too. San Diego Jazz Fest is unrolling its lineup, and you know something? My opinion of the promoter completely aside here, the lineup is a perfect example of what I was talking about when I wrote about Jazz Fest West’s collapse, and the importance of having new artists and *gasp* actual jazz musicians on stage at a jazz festival. San Diego “Jazz” Fest is pretty much a classic example of why jazz isn’t taken seriously. Sorry but not sorry, and not mincing words on this for a moment. Where Capital Jazz will separate out the stages and not commingle R&B and jazz, San Diego just throws in all R&B headliners and calls it a jazz event? That does not fly, kids.

Jazz is not “least popular” – certainly, it’s a niche and always has been, but it has never been this cloistered before, and it certainly did not get to this point without outside influences. I assure you of this: had CD 101.9 survived in NY, as well as all the other stations whom we lost in the Grand Shutdown of 2009, then articles like these wouldn’t exist. Nor would the mentality of “just play the right notes” in the general public. There’s more than enough new artists in jazz, more than enough new music all around. Know what there isn’t? The same consideration and PR machine as there is for pop, hip-hop, rap, soul, and R&B.

But, we soldier on. Because where would we be without Our Music?

This is why it’s hugely important to buy tickets to jazz events, buy CDs, finance Kickstarters, etc, so on, so forth. Because right now, jazz is depending on its people. And that means us.


New Orleans “Jazz” Fest proves my point.

By putting Lady Gaga and Elton John as headliners.

You know, after Lady Gaga worked with Tony Bennett, I could see it working. The girl can sing any-damn-thing, and if you hear her and Tony do Anything Goes, you’re likely to agree.

But that’s a minority of her repertoire.

Elton John’s booking elicited a mighty, “Are you fucking kidding me?!“, and I will confess myself an Elton John fan. I also think he has no business headlining a jazz festival, and while Lady Gaga can definitely pull off jazz, I’d like to see her to at least another full-jazz album before I’d see her at an event.

But wait! Keith Urban? No Doubt? Chicago? WTF is this?!  Okay, I’d buy Chicago, but No Doubt at a jazz festival?


I’ve said it before with the Jazz Fest West cancellation. I said it recently in my call for promoters to book new artists. I have no idea how much plainer my language has to be.


It’s really not fucking rocket science.

It’s really not that difficult to book jazz artists who are young and who appeal to a younger audience. Apparently, the promoters of NOJF have no idea who or what Postmodern Jukebox is, because likely, if they knew, they would see them as a great solution to the problem of seasoning up their aging demographic. Because PMJ has been turning young people on to old-school jazz and soul since they emerged, and if Dave Koz, Ariana Savalas, and Michael Lington see it fitting to collaborate with them – a dual benefit, where the partnership gives them PMJ’s younger fan base and in turn grants PMJ additional pedigree – then you know what? It wouldn’t kill a promoter or two to put them on a damn stage. Really.

Trombone Shorty is on the lineup – great – but what slot is he going to get? He’s a New Orleans native, FFS, and if you’ve seen him live, then you know what I mean when I say that he needs a headliner/evening slot. Not only is he a hell of a showman, but he’s under 40. Meaning he appeals to that age group.

Jazz has been very badly mislabeled and maligned as “easy listening” music. Don’t lie, you and I both know it. We’ve seen what Broadcast Architecture has done to contemporary (aka smooth) jazz radio stations, and it took me a good year or so to tolerate a soprano sax again after Kenny G. My 27-year-old poet/journalist best friend asked me about it this week and was hugely surprised when I showed her, a la Steve Cole, Nick Colionne, and some choice Youtube clips, that it’s absolutely, completely, the opposite of what she’s been led to believe. I told her, “you and the whole country have been misled like that”. And you know something? Elton John being booked at the New Orleans Jazz Fest is a direct confirmation that the promoters, namely those in charge of the festival, really did buy into that maligned image of jazz as “easy listening”, and are tossing in Elton John for everyone whom they really think will buy tix for that festival: the 55+ crowd, baby boomers, retirees, etc.

And Lady Gaga is their attempt to “draw younger people into jazz”? Like Christina Aguilera last year? That’s what it looks like.

This is the same thing as diluting a jazz festival with R&B without sequestering the genres on separate stages, just a much bigger slap in the face. At least R&B and jazz musicians can blend and work around each other; I’ve been to many a jam sesh aboard Capital Jazz Supercruise to see it, and again, Cap sequesters their genres and makes it possible for both sets of fans to enjoy it. But this particular headline booking is little more than an insult to the thousands of jazz artists worldwide who would’ve ripped it apart on that stage. It marks jazz as “easy listening” (when it’s fucking not) with Elton John’s performance – and come on, which stations play EJ’s music anymore? – and it makes it blatantly clear that the promoters have no idea how to draw in a younger crowd apart from booking someone who’s been on every chart and headline but jazz in her own right.

They think that if the young people stay for Lady Gaga, they’d hear everything else and grow to like jazz that way. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Just like if someone is a fan of Boyz II Men and New Edition, putting them into a jazz festival lineup would encourage them to check out Euge Groove, Mindi Abair, or Boney James because they share an event.


Just like with the R&B dilution, this move only serves to infuriate long-standing jazz fans who were counting on seeing an all-jazz event. This will piss off the non-jazz fans of the non-jazz headliners, who don’t want to wade through a day of music they are very likely to not like in order to see their chosen artist, because they’re coming for that artist, not the genre their artist shares a stage with. And moreover, the jazz fans who feel disenfranchised by a diluted lineup will not come to the festival in the first place, nor would they come back. And the reviews of the fest from those longtime jazz fans will be scathing

This is exactly why I, and many other fellow ‘smoothies’ stopped going to Newport Beach Jazz Fest. If I want to see the current Newport Beach lineup artists, I’d stay closer to home, because most of them play NYC and surrounding areas with a much cheaper cost of travel. This is exactly why those of us who love the music enough to fly for it are now staying put. And no young person got into jazz or has gone to a jazz fest because hey, while Lady Gaga is on stage, I’ll check out these people I never heard of! –no. It never, ever works that way.

If you want to get a new audience, you go to the new audience. Go to colleges, schools, put on a festival or series on a campus. Ask them how they get into music. Ask them how they discovered their next favorite artists. It’s basic market research 101. Know what happened when I got into Postmodern Jukebox? I got a college survey asking me how and where and why I like retro/jazz music.

I have no idea when common sense stopped being common, but really…come on now.

Capital Jazz has always been up front about their dual-genre lineup, and guess what: both genres get equal billing on the cruise, each has a separate stage, and neither is put over the other. The jazz stage was just as packed for Generation Next at the fest as the soul stage was packed for Algebra Blessett. Not difficult, and why? The genres. were. presented. separately. Every cruise, I get a survey that asks me whom I want to see, and more than once, I’ve seen direct results of my input presented live on a stage. They run an event the way I would run an event: sensibly.

And that is precisely why Capital Jazz will remain as my go-to event to attend: they give their separate genres equal billing, they never disappoint me with their jazz segment, their special performances have consistently been stellar, and both the cruise and the fest have been a bargain for my money.

If you’re going to insist on having a non-jazz headliner, then please counter them with someone who is solidly of the jazz world. Surely, the Brubeck Brothers would not have been a difficult choice? Randy Brecker? Stanley Clarke? A Return to Forever reunion? There are a million possibilities to counter Elton John.  Not one of them were considered. And No Doubt?! What year is this, anyway? There’s a time and a place for Gwen Stefani, but New Orleans Jazz Fest is not it.

It’s a slap in the face to all the artists I know, and to all the jazz fans who expect – gee, shock! – a jazz lineup at a jazz festival, and what’s worse, it’s a city that has overwhelming jazz history that’s delivering that slap.

New Orleans has been on my list of events to attend, but not anymore. I think I’d rather go to Mallorca or Jakarta for the jazz events there. Their lineups are 1. all jazz and 2. amazing.

Really. It’s not that fucking difficult. Good gods, if only to have a wealthy sponsor…I’d put on a fucking jazz event myself, no matter how much lost sleep and/or BS I’d have to put up with.


State of the Jazz Union

You may have read this in multiple parts in rant form, but a much more cohesive version of why I gnashed teeth over Yoshi’s and Jazz Fest West, and any festival apart from my beloved Capital Jazz that went more than 25% R&B, is live up at Detroit Jazz Magazine, where I’m an occasional journalist.


You may be wondering why I’m rehashing this. And I will tell you in no uncertain terms: because someone has to say it. Someone has to say it and someone has to keep saying it. Until and unless we all come together – promoters, bookers, artists, photographers, fans, and journalists – then we will really not have very much in the realm of what the jazz scene has to offer.

And a genre that has been alive, evolving, and robust in every iteration for a hundred years deserves better than to be pushed by the wayside.


On Events & Behind the Scenes

Or, better put, the viewer’s perspective on what makes events happen.

First things first, though, I’d like to thank everyone who read my epic rant on Jazz Fest West. It’s probably my most-read post in the entire five-year history of the blog, no joke. I have had plenty of excellent discussions all over social media on this topic. Thank you, one and all.

I am following up further on the topic and bringing it into a different vein, on account that there is something else that has come to mind.

As before, I won’t name names outright. If it’s you, then by all means, lace up the shoe and wear it. Also, please note that what I’m writing in this blog is simply no more and no less than my personal opinion. You’re free to disagree, but as an independent, I’m free to express it as I like it.

My biggest problem with a lot of jazz festivals, or “jazz” festivals, better put, is the over-dilution of R&B. Capital Jazz is the exception to this. Why exception? The two genres – jazz and soul/R&B – are largely sequestered throughout the festival on their own stages. Jazz is at the big Pavilion Stage, and the soul and R&B are at the Soul Stage (or Symphony Woods stage, as it was this year). And that is fine. People enjoy both genres equally across the board, and know what they want to see.

However, if you have only one stage, then the genre mix does not go over well. Not with the jazz fans, not with the R&B fans, and while I can’t speak for the artists, I can’t imagine either side of the divide is happy either.

But right now, I’m not going to wax ranty about the genre divide too much. I’m going to wax philosophical about event production, and what does and doesn’t contribute to event success. To many of you, this is basically preaching to the choir, but to some of you, this will be a quick Event Production 101.

The thing that any promoter needs to know is that artists always talk. They talk between themselves, and they talk to their friends. So when a festival promoter is getting a bad rap from the people behind the scenes, I tend to look askance at the event altogether. If people I know are getting mistreated by a promoter, then I will avoid the event. Why? I see it as unethical to give money to someone who doesn’t treat my people well. Likewise for working with such a production. I will give most people a chance, but you best believe that I won’t so much as put my camera battery into its charger unless my contract is ironclad and my deposit is in the bank.

And let this be a message to every event promoter or club owner: if the people you work with have something to say about you that is not a praise, this can, and inevitably will, affect your venue or event. People will not come to your event if they feel that their friends are mistreated in any way, and they will certainly tell other people to avoid it if they will get any sort of bad treatment.

To note, I know I’m not immune from this. If anyone is setting out to work in any enterprise that thrives on word of mouth for its survival, they too are subject to the same rule. I try my best to do right by my clients, but I know that there will be some people with whom it won’t go well. And I know that how I handle such a situation will very much affect how my business will continue. That’s the risk I run by working in music – and you know what, that’s the responsibility I have to take.

But from the event perspective, word of mouth is hugely important. Event production falls into the category of “spend money to make money”. For every festival event, the venue needs to be booked, insurance needs to be acquired, artist contracts written, deposits paid, and so on and so forth. Depending on your event, there’s a lot of outlay there. The event producer will make a profit by recouping the costs in a total amount greater than the initial investment.

So word of mouth, especially positive word of mouth, is the single best insurance for attendance, which in turn is a single best insurance for the promoter recouping costs.

The second and very important part of event production is how to price it.

Consider this: every production is an investment-first endeavor. Even the most basic of concert shows. When a producer wants to put on a show, they have to rent the venue, pay the performers, rent the backline, get the insurance – because few if any venues will ever allow a show without insurance – and then and only then set the prices at a rate enough that will break them even, or at least minimize the loss. Of course, the objective is to make a profit – keep that in mind, always.

Similarly with festivals. The difference is that there are more performers, higher venue costs, and therefore higher ticket price.

That explained, there’s one major, major thing to note: if your event is not priced to sell, it will not. This is especially true for any event that sees out-of-towners in attendance on a regular basis. If your ticket prices are not appealing, then you can trust that a chunk of the audience – usually the chunk where the event travel is longer than an hour by car or by subway – will not attend. If they can get the same or similar lineup elsewhere, for a lesser price, what motivation will they have for attending your event? The price has to be right.

I’ve encountered this with more than one festival, and it’s part of why I’ve gotten very choosy with the events that I attend. Some of the best jazz fests are, typically, out in CA. I always look at the performers, the price, and the promoter in charge, in that order. There are some performers for whom I will gladly hop on a plane for, and likewise some that I would not travel very far to see. The price is a major deciding factor: if I can get a cheaper ticket somewhere closer, that’s what I will do. And the promoter in charge: how does he or she or they treat the people they work with? I want to know that my people will be treated right. I want to know that I will be treated right if I’m working for the event in question or for someone affiliated with the event. I cannot tell you how important that part is for me, not as a viewer/audience member, but as someone who works behind the scenes of a lot of events.

When a promoter for a festival decides to do a charter cruise, all of the above plays into the event’s outcome.

Putting on a charter cruise is easily the single most expensive thing an event producer can ever do. I’ll certainly commend the producer in this case for being ambitious, because I know the accounting required in such an endeavor. It’s a lulu. What I will, however, ask, are three things:

1. What’s the lineup trying to accomplish?

2. Who’s in charge and what do I know about them?

and 3. How much?

Answering Question #1 is a mixed bag with a recent cruise endeavor that I’ve spotted rolling out. I don’t mind genre splits on a cruise, because that way, I can actually have a cruise. This is, again, why I love Capital Jazz very much: if I’m not a fan of an artist, that is perfectly okay – it means I can go for a massage, have a steakhouse dinner, or just plain relax and sleep in the meantime. It’s nothing against the artist, of course, but for myself, as a fan of jazz first, I have little interest in R&B. On the years where it’s less jazz and more soul/R&B, I actually got to have a vacation. But I’m looking at this recent cruise and I’m seeing major R&B/soul headliners…and what looks to be all major jazz headliners from the past 3 years’ recent fests and other cruises all thrown into the same bag. Okay..? Is the emphasis on the R&B or on the jazz, then? I’d probably love such a cruise, because the jazz event is wholly satisfying for one like myself, but the overall purpose of the event looks muddled, which in turn makes me ask how well it’s actually organized. With CapJazz, it’s clear that they want to present two sides of the genre divide that they built their brand on, and they make the day-to-day operations work. What’s the purpose with this event?

#2: Yes, I know who’s in charge. But I will ask references from people who had worked with them before. The references are important. My observations are one half of the puzzle. What people tell me is the other. And yes, if I don’t hear good things about Le Grande Fromage who’s putting the entire thing on, then you best believe that will play into my decision to go or not to go.

#3 is the most important of them all. How much does it all cost? I looked at the pricing and it was a case of sticker shock. Yes, I know charter cruises aren’t cheap. For me especially – because I travel alone. This is the thing: cruises don’t like people traveling alone. If I want my own cabin, I have to buy it out. Some productions have singles pricing, others allow me to pay 150% plus double the port taxes to buy it out. So already, I’m at a disadvantage. I expect a price disparity from one cruise production to another, but if I can get a single-price cabin and at whatever rate it is, it’s still less than the per-person price of a cabin elsewhere, then I will most certainly go where I keep more money in my pocket.

Just as an example: I can get a single cabin on one cruise, all to myself. Add in port-tax and gratuities, and it’s a grand total about $3K – yes, steep, but if you’re considering that in addition to cabin cost you’re also paying admission to no less than 40 shows/jam sessions/events, then you’re getting a pretty good deal. However: that same 3K on another cruise is just the per-person cost for the cheapest inside cabin on board – and if I want to go on that cruise, I’d have to pay double that to go alone. Of course, this means I’ll go with where I can get more bang for my buck – in this case, with the single cabin that costs less. Because, with the other production, if they’re generous and let me buy out at 150%, I’m still going to be paying no less than $4,500! That’s the cost of my entire trip with the other guys – including flight, hotel pre-cruise, and onboard spending! Yes, I will concur the lineup won’t be the same, however, I am not made of money, and I am going to go where it costs me less in pure out-of-pocket expenditure.

I wholly understand that prices have to be at a certain rate for the promoter to recoup initial investment costs, but if enough people say, “That’s too much money” and not go as a result, then the entire event is in jeopardy. Not enough ticket sales = significant loss = less money to the promoter to reinvest in future events = future of the entire production is…? This is how and why the All Star Cruises had closed their doors; I was lucky enough to have been on board the last sailing, and the price was rockbottom – lucky for me, but in retrospect, it’s a sign of desperation on the cruise line’s behalf if they gave me my cabin for the rate that they had. They were trying to fill the ship, and no, they didn’t fill it. So the line had closed its doors after that last one, and I understand why: the promoter must have taken a hell of a bath. It was an amazing ship, a fantastic all-jazz lineup, but if they couldn’t manage to pull off a full ship, then yes, I wholly expect them to shutter it.

Likewise for festivals. Doubly if the cruise and the fest are put on by the same person. Because whatever the festival reputation is, it carries into the cruises. This is why you see Michael Lazaroff’s production consistently sell out – whatever my opinion on Lazaroff is, Smooth Jazz Cruises are, last time I checked, a driving force behind Seabreeze Jazz Fest, which is one of the most sold-out East Coast events after Berks and Cap. It’s extremely likely that the Breeze attendees pack in en masse for the cruises: they know what to expect based on the fest. Same for CapJazz’s continued success: people know what to expect from the festivals, and go on the cruises – and vice versa.

To sum up, I will say this: we all look out for each other behind the scenes. I can’t count the number of times a fellow photog or musician had done me a solid, and I’m more than prepared to do the same for them in return. There are some promoters I will always work with, because I know that they will treat me with integrity, and that they will do right by the people they book. Likewise to contrary. And the number-one thing a promoter needs to keep in mind is exactly that: what references will he or she or they receive after the event is said and done? This is on all sides of the divide: performer, manager, booker, photographer, attendee, vendor… References come from everywhere, and a huge contributing factor to the continued success of a production is making sure that the positive outweighs the naysayers.