Monday, July 29, 2013

Bending the Mold

1983 saw the rebirth of the Kansas City Jazz Festival. Organizers wisely placed a call for volunteers in the program, to help plan and organize the 1984 event. I was looking for an entrée to civic involvement and responded. I remained involved, to varying degrees, through the next seven festivals.

That may be why I still hold a keener interest in jazz festivals than most people.

The festival I helped organize would eventually, after I left, merge with the Blues festival and grow into a much larger event. But it eventually died, reportedly succumbing to a massive debt.

The Rhythm and Ribs Festival was born eight years ago as a grand event. It encompassed two days and all of Parade Park. But financial reports available online tell us it lost money each year.

That’s easy to do with festivals.

In 2009, in the face of the recession, Rhythm and Ribs retired. The next year, a different festival with the same name replaced it. This new event filled a single day, and embraced a much more concise footprint. The downsizing, let’s be honest, was a disappointment. But those online financial reports tell us this was the first Kansas City festival named Rhythm and Ribs to turn a profit. The wisdom of the change is clear.

The new Rhythm and Ribs adopted a formula: A jazz headliner, a blues headliner, and an R and B headliner whose sole purpose was to draw a crowd. Commercially, it worked. Two years ago, when the repackaged musical band War took the festival stage and started singing The Cisco Kid, Rhythm and Ribs, in that year, stopped being a jazz or a blues festival. But give organizers credit. That band drew the largest audience of the day and the audience loved it.

Still, after three years of the same formula, of jazz headliner/blues headliner/r and b headliner to draw a crowd, the format was growing stale. When you’re turning a profit, it takes courage to change. And it takes wisdom to recognize when an event needs to evolve.

This year, Rhythm and Ribs has been rechristened as Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. The name could stand some pruning, but if that turns out to be the biggest complaint, who cares.

Last week, the lineup was announced. Its emphasis is crossover appeal.

Top headliner George Duke brings solid jazz credentials, but is a name also known in rock and R and B circles. I know little about the second jazz headliner, the Art Blakey Tribute Band, but YouTube videos suggest this group may hold more appeal to jazz traditionalists.

Bettye LaVette is claimed by both the Blues and R and B sides of the fence. I just categorize her as the headliner I most want to hear. Kelley Hunt, who in December will be performing with The Kansas City Jazz Orchestra, delivers solid Blues.

(In the ad replicating the festival poster in JAM magazine, both Bettye LaVette’s and Kelley Hunt’s names are misspelled. Let’s hope those typos didn’t make it to the final poster.)

And there’s the R-and-B-Band-Whose-Purpose-Is-To-Draw-A-Crowd: Con Funk Shun.

Last week I noted that in booking the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, a goal was to see it evolve and grow. I believe the goal, however modestly, was met. The renamed festival at 18th and Vine seems to have modestly grown as well. Two solid jazz headliners and two blues headliners expands on the one/one/one formula.

If it seems I sometimes whine about Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, or show overt interest, it’s because my festival planning years leave me caring for the event. Yes, I’ve helped plan the jazz festival in Prairie Village. But the festival at 18th and Vine is the one bearing the most potential. It clearly has the bigger budget with the more broadly recognized acts. And it has been extraordinarily well organized and executed, minding the details which make a difference to the audience experience.

Kansas City doesn’t need a festival on the scale of Newport’s. Jammin’ at the Gem and the Folly Series and Jazz Winterlude and The Blue Room bring nationally recognized jazz talent to Kansas City throughout the year. But this city, one of a rare few where jazz was born, deserves a major jazz festival. And Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival is the event showing the greatest potential to grow into that event.

Curiously, though, the festival situated where jazz and blues were born in Kansas City seems convinced that acts with crossover appeal are needed to draw a crowd to the neighborhood. Meanwhile, the festival situated out in the suburbs is placing its faith in a day of music that can only be sold as jazz.

If I could make a suggestion to organizers at the American Jazz Museum: When booking this festival, have more faith in jazz.

And shorten the name.

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