Monday, June 24, 2013

Because I See the Potential

The 1984 Kansas City Jazz Festival lost $128,000.

A show at Starlight Theater with Sarah Vaughan and Ray Charles drew a fraction of the audience that Ella Fitzgerald and George Benson attracted there the year before. Then rains scattered the crowd at Volker Park on September 2nd, at the festival’s big outdoor finale, leaving a meager crowd for the delayed conclusion of Joe Williams with the Duke Ellington Orchestra conducted by Mercer Ellington.

Leaders of the event negotiated with vendors and slowly repaid the debt. In 1989, the last of it was paid off.

That, coincidentally, was the year I served as festival president, and the year Pat Metheny’s performance succumbed to storms.

I was delighted to turn over a debt-free festival to the organization’s next president. But rains do more than spoil a year of planning. They illustrate to sponsors the risk inherent with their support and lay out vividly that the recognition expected by association with a successful outdoor festival can be washed away faster than you can say Bryan Busby.

A successful event breeds more and more generous donors. I’m seeing it this year with the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. A rainout makes the arduous art of fundraising even more grueling. I saw it after the 1984 and 1989 Kansas City Jazz Festivals and after the 2011 Prairie Village fest.

So I understand the risks. I recognize the obstacles.

And I see the potential.

I chaired the Kansas City Jazz Commission from 1987 into 1989. Different members of the City Council approached me with different agendas: An international jazz hall of fame. Convert the KCMO tower (at 31st and McGee) into a giant saxophone, to rival the St. Louis arch. And, from more than one, combine this city’s multiple jazz festivals – at the time, we hosted the Kansas City Jazz Festival and the 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival – into one mega-jazz-fest to compete with New Orleans.

The desire has long simmered for this city to host a major celebration of our internationally-renowned heritage. Not one to compete with New Orleans. Recognize that some events are unique and beyond our reasonable reach. But something more grand than any of the relatively minor jazz celebrations that currently pepper this town.

Last week, I bemoaned the formula of the festival staged the last few years by the American Jazz Museum, and that it appears positioned not as an independent event but as a fundraiser for the Museum.

I understand the risks of breaking a successful, if uninspiring, formula. I recognize the obstacles organizers must face coming off a year devoured by rain.

And I point to it because I see the potential for that festival to grow into something grand.

Say it plainly: In Rhythm and Ribs, organizers have executed an outstanding event. They have outlined an excellent flow to the festival grounds, including performance spaces inside the museum. Likewise, there’s a flow to the schedule. The event hosts an overwhelmingly happy crowd. Vendors I spoke with two years ago were pleased (one I knew said demand exceeded his expectations). Details are where many such events go wrong, and here the details are exceptionally well managed. For example, look at the signage. It’s not hand-scribbled slop, but professionally produced placards. This may seem insignificant, but it makes a difference to the image projected.

Even last year, when rain rendered most of the festival grounds unusable, the staff coped, shoehorning crowds into the Gem Theater. Despite the storms, the festival went on. Two years ago, the Prairie Village Jazz Festival was called on account of rain. Likewise the second day of this year’s Corporate Woods Jazz Fest. Where Johnson County wimps out, 18th and Vine perseveres.

The American Jazz Museum has established the base of an extraordinary event. But it hurts not to see the festival grow beyond this base. It hurts knowing Kansas City deserves a major jazz festival, and seeing the start of one, but not yet seeing it grow beyond that start.

I’ve listed the plethora of jazz stars headlining the Newport Jazz Festival this August. As wonderful as it would be, Kansas City doesn’t need to match that. I suspect those three days in August are Newport’s lone gasp of jazz air for the year. We have the Folly and Jammin’ at the Gem jazz series. We have special guests visiting throughout the year, especially at The Blue Room. Kansas City’s jazz exposure isn’t limited to three days. We don’t need to equal Newport’s three days.

Yet we need to improve. The Museum cannot risk losing the kind of money The Kansas City Jazz Festival once lost. But the Museum’s festival nevertheless holds the potential to grow beyond a jazz name, a blues name, and some R-and-B group to draw a crowd.

Perhaps that’s happening.

Not officially announced, as far as I know, the festival known as Rhythm and Ribs is changing its name. The American Jazz Museum’s online newsletter (here) promotes early ticket sales for “Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival (formerly Rhythm and Ribs).”

The newsletter doesn’t actually give us the date of the event, but Ticketmaster (here) is selling tickets for “Kansas City’s 2013 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival” starting at 11 a.m. on Saturday, October 12th.

Does the name change portend a shift in focus? In the wake of a rain-damaged year, has the festival retrenched, or is it building on its exquisitely executed potential?

I’m optimistic.

Because I see the potential.

1 comment:

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