Apparently, two types of festivals today use jazz in their name. One is a jazz festival legitimately full with jazz acts. This year’s Chicago Jazz Festival, for instance, stars Kurt Rosenwinkel, Tootie Heath, Terrence Blanchard with Ravi Coltrane, Gary Burton, and Dave Holland with Kevin Eubanks. Each act, without question, is jazz.
Then there’s the event with jazz in its name which sports a token jazz act surrounded by other, presumably more popular, genres of music. The Capital Jazz Festival, situated between Washington D.C. and Baltimore, is an example. This year, Dianne Reeves shared the billing with Chaka Khan, Erykah Badu, John Legend, Peabo Bryson and The O’Jays.
I’m not sure why an event like that is branded a jazz festival. Perhaps it’s a legacy title, recalling a day when its schedule was dominated by jazz. Or maybe it’s because the event is located in a jazz district.
That would explain the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival.
Let’s state upfront: Organizers at the American Jazz Museum stage a first class event. Last year cut a few corners compared to previous years, such as less and less elegant signage. But the museum still mounted an outstanding music festival, complemented with a variety of vendors, tight staging, a good flow through the grounds, and deep respect for visitors once you’re inside the festival (but not when you’re trying to find a parking space; unless you’re an organizer or a sponsor who paid oodles, parking is a problem).
But whatever you name it, this is a music festival, not any more a jazz festival than one starring Chaka Khan and the O’Jays. Look at the announced headliners.
Trumpeter Roy Hargrove is the event’s legitimate connection to jazz. But the festival’s website does everything possible to downplay that connection. It says, “Ever stretching into more challenging and colorful ways to flex his musical chops, Hargrove has left indelible imprints in a vast array of artful settings. In 2003, he introduced his own hip hop/jazz collective The RH Factor….” And it quotes Hargrove as musing, “I’ve been doing more touring with RH Factor than my quintet lately….” It doesn’t state whether he’s coming with his quintet or his don’t-worry-everybody-it-doesn’t-really-sound-like-jazz group.
Headliner Meshell Ndegeocello is described by the festival’s website “as a redeemer of soul music. Her music incorporates funk, soul, hip-hop, reggae, rock and jazz.” I listened to some of it on iTunes. The jazz influence is exceptionally well hidden.
The festival site makes no pretense at all of tying headliner Midnight Star to jazz. Good thing. I’d never heard of them. After listening to their Greatest Hits album on iTunes, I never want to hear them again. You will if you like 1980s vintage electronic dance music.
Finally, headliner Lucky Peterson fills the blues portion of the festival’s lengthy title as, frankly, the act I’m most looking forward to hearing. With a modern groove laid down on a true down-n-dirty blues sound and the occasional boogie, this music is authentic. Maybe authentic enough to scare off everyone the other acts seem aimed at attracting.
I understand the expense involved with staging an outdoor festival. I understand the need to attract more people than attend a concert at The Gem or spend a night in The Blue Room.
But I also understand the message being sent implies a fear of jazz. The American Jazz Museum is staging a music festival that tries to associate itself with jazz though its name but disassociate itself through the actual music. This appears to be a festival booked with marketing in mind, by defining an age group who organizers think will buy tickets to a music event at 18th and Vine and booking the acts they can afford with the broadest appeal to that defined group.
I work in marketing. I deal daily with research and target marketing. It’s a fine, science-based method for building campaigns designed to move merchandise to consumers or for driving business-to-business sales.
I hate art defined by marketing. Especially when I know organizers don’t need to fear jazz.
You see a comparable mentality to the Corporate Woods Jazz Festival. I haven’t decided yet whether that event’s decision this year to book Bobby Watson, Eldar and Angela Hagenbach in half hour segments was a misguided experiment or booking by someone who doesn’t have a clue.
Legitimate jazz names properly selected, correctly marketed – that’s critical – and fairly priced will draw people to an outdoor music festival. You need to sell the event. You need to sell the experience. You need to sell the idea that if you miss this, you’ll miss what everyone in the office will be discussing on Monday morning. There’s where research-based marketing benefits an arts event: In knowing how to sell it. And that’s where you set a festival apart from, say, a jazz concert at the Folly marketed with a few ads in the Sunday Star.
I remember in the early 1980s, at an 18th and Vine Jazz and Heritage Festival, hearing Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis and Harry “Sweets” Edison perform with Rich Hill’s trio in Eblon, a club then at the corner of 18th and Vine where Danny’s Big Easy stands today. A small stage was set up because rain had forced the outdoor tents to come down. And as “Lockjaw” blew an unforgettable solo, the noisy club quieted, every conversation stopped, and the audience listened. We were hearing musical magic.
The 2014 equivalent of an act like that should be playing a music festival at 18th and Vine. Properly marketed, it will draw a crowd. It will just be a different crowd than comes to hear 1980s vintage electronic dance music.