Monday, June 25, 2012

Wanted: Aspirations

Headliners for this year’s Detroit Jazz Festival, over Labor Day weekend, in Detroit’s Hart Park: Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis Quintet, Pat Metheny Unity Band, Chick Corea and Gray Burton, Wayne Shorter Quartet, Joe Lovano, Art Blakey Tribute with Terence Blanchard, Lew Tabackin Quartet featuring Randy Brecker, Charles McPherson/Tom Harrell Quintet, Donald Harrison Quintet, Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Pancho Sanchez, Artuto O’Farrill Septet with Donald Harrison, Ellery Eskelin Trio, Kenny Garret Quartet, Louis Hayes Quaret.


Headliners for this year’s Rhythm and Ribs Jazz and Blues Festival, on October 13 in the 18th and Vine district: Arturo Sandoval, Joe Louis Walker, Angie Stone.


This year we’ll see the third downsized festival since Rhythm and Ribs’s resurrection. And let’s recognize that last year, organizers staged an extraordinarily professional event. They expertly managed virtually every detail, from the staging of the music right down to the signage. It was marketed strongly. The vendors with whom I spoke were thrilled. I estimated crowd size at around 7000 for the day (as far as I know, no official numbers were announced), and most of them appeared thrilled, too.

The American Jazz Museum’s 2011 audit report, available on the Greater Kansas City Community Foundation website (download PDF here) covers the first revived festival, in 2010. Without breaking out details, it notes that 2010 was the first Rhythm and Ribs Festival ever to turn a profit. It seems reasonable to assume last year’s did, too.

But something is missing.

Museum officials two years back spoke of the 2010 event as a fresh start. After a year’s absence, in 2010 Rhythm and Ribs was back. It was downsized, out of Parade Park, into a more confined (and, presumably, more affordable) space between the American Jazz Museum and the Gregg Community Center, and with a more limited line-up. But that was just the start, officials said. The festival would grow from there.

Two years later, the festival shows no aspirations of growing.

The space is good, the right fit for the crowd the festival currently attracts.

But festival talent seems settled in a pattern of one good but not particularly major jazz headliner, one blues headliner, and one headliner with crossover appeal who presumably will be the one to draw a crowd.

That’s a pattern to bring about 7000 people into 18th and Vine for a day. That’s a pattern to maintain a day of profit and high profile for the American Jazz Museum. Both are solid goals.

But that’s a pattern, not a start. It’s not a pattern showing any confidence in jazz. It’s not a pattern showing any aspiration of building into a significant jazz festival.

And it’s largely not the American Jazz Museum’s fault.

Look at the Detroit Jazz Festival’s web site (here). Look at its history. That festival started in 1980 and received an endowment of ten million dollars in 2006. That’s why it can afford Rollins and Marsalis and Metheny and dozens more in 2012.

The Kansas City Jazz Festival in the 1980s grew not from a bunch of jazz fans, but from a civic organization of young professionals, with strong connections to Kansas City’s business and philanthropic communities, looking to make a contribution to the city.

That’s the support a jazz festival needs to grow beyond a well organized annual fundraiser. Lacking a ten million dollar benefactor, it requires the resources and stature which follow the civic community stepping forward and saying Kansas City needs and deserves something better.

I wrote after last year’s festival that it appeared the civic community had coalesced behind Rhythm and Ribs as Kansas City’s annual jazz event. Now, I’m dubious. Rather, some businesses are contributing to a fundraising day for the Jazz Museum in the guise of a festival.

Every one of us should support that.

But in its third year, Rhythm and Ribs appears to have settled into a comfort zone, and that zone includes no apparent aspirations to be anything more than a profitable day with a jazz guy, a blues guy and someone who will draw a bigger crowd than either the jazz guy or blues guy will draw.

Unquestionably, this city will support a major jazz event. The Kansas City Jazz Festival of the 1980s attracted tens of thousands of people over a weekend. It can happen again.

But it requires more than jazz fans. It requires an organization with strong business ties.

Or maybe there’s another answer.

Maybe an organization can build a jazz festival in Kansas City with the support of a company looking to bring its brand into this market with a major new venture, looking to garner civic support and acclaim, which can be sold on the benefit of attaching itself to a major community celebration.

The Kansas City Google Jazz Festival, anyone?

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Comments are welcome. If you prefer, you can reach me directly at kcjazzlark(at)gmail(dot)com.