Monday, July 22, 2013

Building a Festival

Successful events grab you through their personality.

A few years ago, a group of people, looking to benefit the community, founded the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. They considered a city-wide celebration, but the price of national jazz talent quickly convinced them to scale their plans to a community event, focusing on performers from or with distinct ties to Kansas City.

The second year of the event, I was asked to help. Last year and this year, the festival’s fourth, I’ve booked the talent.

This year’s schedule for Saturday, September 7th at Harmon Park, 7700 Mission Road in Prairie Village, Kansas – with free admission – looks like this:

3:00 – 3:50 p.m.  Andy McGhie Quintet
Andy McGhie, tenor saxophone, Hermon Mehari, trumpet, Andrew Ouelette, piano, Karl McComas-Reichl, bass, Ryan Lee, drums

4:10 – 5:00 p.m.  Parallax
Stan Kessler, trumpet, Roger Wilder, piano, Bill McKemy, bass, Ryan Lee and Brian Steever, drums

5:20 – 6:10 p.m.  Mutual Musicians Foundation All-Stars
Steve Lambert, tenor saxophone and flute, Mike Herrera, alto saxophone, Peter Schlamb, vibraphone, Chris Clarke, piano, Dominique Sanders, bass, Brad Williams, drums

6:30 – 7:20 p.m.  Everette DeVan – Chris Hazelton Quartet
Everette DeVan and Chris Hazelton, Hammond B3 organs, Matt Hopper, guitar, Danny Rojas, drums

7:40 – 8:40 p.m.  Marilyn Maye
Marilyn Maye, vocals, Tedd Firth, piano, Gerald Spaits, bass, Jim Eklof, drums

9:00 – 10:30 p.m.  Bobby Watson All-Star Big Band with Special Guest Jon Faddis
Bobby Watson, alto saxophone, Jon Faddis, trumpet, plus a big band

So just how is a festival like this booked? Out of all of the spectacular talent in Kansas City, how did these acts make the six-slot lineup?

For starters, festival acts need to be dynamic. We’re talking a large stage facing a hill seating thousands of people. Intimate jazz is wonderful in the right venue. A hill seating thousands of people is not the right venue.

Second, consider the audience: Families with picnic baskets out for a fun time. The music can’t be too esoteric, can’t require too much concentration to understand and appreciate. Few on that hill came to concentrate. Make the music accessible.

However, jazz in this city covers a broad range. It’s not the festival’s goal to force the full gamut down audience throats. But neither should this be a full day of swing because swing is accessible. Offer variety.

And grow the event. Last year’s festival was a terrific success, as fundraising coming a bit more easily this year attests. Businesses recognize the success and want to be associated with it. But we can’t offer the same package again. That’s stagnation. Within its parameters – within its personality – this festival needs to evolve into something more significant.

To my mind, that means a mix of established acts and acts unique to the festival. Because it’s through those unique acts that the event sees its greatest chance for growth.

Some acts I knew I wanted long ago. Last year I first heard Andy McGhie’s quintet, some KC’s best young jazz talent, playing bebop standards and originals. The way Andy and Hermon Mehari played off of and drove each other made for an amazing night at Take Five. I knew then that this was the group to open this year’s festival.

Parallax may be the most contemporary band of the day. But its two drums astound and should play extraordinarily well on a big outdoor stage. I realized that early this year.

Everette Devan - Chris Hazelton may be the swingingest group of the day. They were certainly the swingingest in January’s Jazz Winterlude. And dueling Hammond B3s ought to be another big outdoor stage delight. Another early in the year realization.

The festival president argued strongly for inclusion of a local singer he knew. The singer is good and I voiced no objections. Festival committee politics fills a slot.

Meanwhile, I struggled with finding the right headliners. All of you smooth jazz bands who have played the Jazz in the Woods and contacted me: Smooth is their schtick, not ours.

Then in early April, I heard what was then billed as Bobby Watson’s 18th and Vine Big Band at The Blue Room. This was the big band Bobby assembled for a pair of February Kansas City Symphony pops concerts. The personnel were a who’s who of Kansas City jazz in 2013. That night, I asked Bobby if he could assemble the band again for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival in September. Yes, he could. Now take this a step further. If you could feature any guest you wanted with the band, within reason, who would it be?

A couple weeks later the answer came back: Jon Faddis will do it.

This was what I was looking for. With Jon Faddis, one of the most respected names in jazz performing with Bobby and his big band, we keep the KC connection the festival committee wants. And we feature something unique. Sure, this isn’t going to draw the New York literati. But if you want to hear two jazz greats, Bobby Watson and Jon Faddis, perform together backed by an all-star big band, you must be in Prairie Village, Kansas on September 7th.

That left one open slot. To my surprise, fundraising was proceeding well enough to consider another headline-level name. I’d been thinking Marilyn Maye from the start. She was available and wanted to do it. Done.

Then not done. We found the singer festival committee politics selected wasn’t actually available that day. Once more, one more slot needed filling. This was an opening between the days’s most contemporary and swingingest groups. I needed music to bridge that contrast. I considered four groups and offered it to one. They weren’t available.

After some thought, I phoned a board member at the Mutual Musicians Foundation. How about bringing a Foundation jam to Prairie Village? How about a group with some of the best musicians jamming 18th and Highland on a Friday or Saturday night? Quickly, the band came together. Musically, it fits the slot. And it’s one more group unique to this festival.

The schedule is finalized. Contracts are signed. Goals were set and I hope they’re met. On September 7th, we’ll find out.

We’ll find out whether the 2013 Prairie Village Jazz Festival grabs you through its personality.

1 comment:

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