Monday, September 16, 2013

Festival Thoughts

I was mad.

The festival was promoted as starting at 3:00. At 3:00, people were in the park, waiting for it to start.

But the time had slipped well past 3:00, to 3:10, maybe 3:15. The first band was ready to go on. And we were waiting for the Mayor of Prairie Village to find his way to the stage to make opening remarks.

Just introduce the band and start the festival, I argued. Tell the Mayor he missed his opportunity. Nobody, not a soul, was sitting in that devastating heat waiting to hear the Mayor of Prairie Village, Kansas talk, for pity’s sake. They were waiting to hear jazz.

But organizers more respectful of the politics entwined with a city-sponsored festival won the argument. And that’s why the fourth annual Prairie Village Jazz Festival started late.

It was the only time all day I would be mad about anything.

*****

The audience amazed me.

The heat was crippling. The first group stumbled off stage at the end of their set talking about how hot it was up there. But they were young and could take it. During the second set, Stan Kessler nearly seared his lips when putting his trumpet to them to solo – despite keeping the trumpet under a towel. Backstage, my shirt was soaked in sweat (and I decidedly do not sport the physique to model a wet t-shirt).

Yet, an audience nearly the same size at the same time as the audience at last year’s festival spotted the grounds in front of the stage. The majority clustered in the shade under trees a bit up the hill. Others, mostly in wide-brimmed hats, bravely claimed spots directly in front on the stage and directly under the sun.

The sun started setting during the fourth set. Then the crowd streamed in. By the time Marilyn Maye claimed the stage, the park was more densely packed and people covered more of the grounds than last year.

You plan a music festival expecting the largest crowd for the headliners. And when temperatures turn unseasonably stifling, you accept crowd size will suffer. I co-emceed the 1985 Kansas City Jazz Festival on the south lawn of the Nelson Museum, when temperatures reached 103 degrees. Later, when friends asked how I felt about talking before a crowd, I would say that during the evening a spotlight blinded me and I couldn’t see the audience, and during the day there was no audience.

Not so at this year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Temperatures hit the mid-90s two Saturdays ago. The number of fans who defied unreasonable heat that day to hear Kansas City jazz 2013-style truly surprised me. The park was never empty, never close to it.

So don’t tell me nobody will turn out for jazz in Kansas City.

*****

Marilyn Maye is a sweetheart. Bobby Watson and Jon Faddis are absolute delights. It was a genuine treat to host every local musician in the festival.

That’s not always the case when staging festivals. We organizers are a group of volunteers doing the best we can, but we’re volunteers and we make plenty of mistakes. For the second consecutive year, for instance, musicians out early on Saturday for sound checks wound up waiting on us to be ready for them.

Some years, you book prima donnas who make your life miserable and you smile and thank them for gracing your event.

Not this year. This year, gracious musicians as much as an appreciative audience made all of the work involved in presenting this festival a joy. That’s the reward for which a volunteer organizer wishes, but doesn’t always receive.

Thank you, musicians. Thank you, audience.

*****

My favorite backstage quote came from Jon Faddis, when he first saw Bobby Watson at the sound check on Saturday morning:

“Look at that! Bobby grew a tummy! When did Bobby get that tummy?”

*****

Promotion was my biggest disappointment this year.

Don’t take that statement the wrong way. The press treated the festival wonderfully.

But I’m a huge advocate of properly marketing an event. Build an online presence. Spend some money on ads.

At the time we signed the talent, we organizers were projecting raising nearly $10,000 more to stage the event than we wound up securing. Fundraising simply didn’t come through as optimistically anticipated.

Promotional deals were available with the newspaper and a TV station, deals that could have raised awareness of the festival to the next level. But as strongly as I advocate for marketing, I’m an even stronger voice against spending money which hasn’t been raised prior to the day of the event. That’s how festivals go broke.

Volunteers maintained the web site and Facebook. But there’s limits to the time people also working a full time job can offer. Volunteers gave all they could muster. A greater online presence requires more volunteers, or more money to pay professionals to help the festival promote.

Or both.

*****

At this moment, I have no idea who will be in next year’s Prairie Village Jazz Festival.

Prairie Village law requires the festival to have in the bank the money required to pay a contract before the contract can be signed. So a certain level of fundraising needs to precede signing talent.

*****

You’re looking for photos from the 2013 Prairie Village Jazz Festival, aren’t you?

Look next week.

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

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