I don’t remember the numbers now. It was probably 80,000 or 100,000. But whatever it was we claimed for attendance at the two day Kansas City Jazz Festival in Volker Park in 1987 or 1988, The Kansas City Star wouldn’t print it. Our media person went to their offices to argue our case. They showed her photos they had taken, with large gaps of space between clusters of people. That park couldn’t hold 40,000 or 50,000 bodies a day unless they were packed in far tighter than that, The Star’s editors argued. They wouldn’t budge.
Those were the days when the Spirit Festival filled Penn Valley Park around Independence Day and claimed a quarter million visitors to their event. That, too, was a gargantuan exaggeration. But The Star published their self-proclaimed crowd estimates. If the newspaper was going to let that festival get away with those kinds of numbers, they owed us upper five figure to low six figure crowd estimates. That’s how we saw it.
Probably realizing everybody was feeding them heaping plates of crowd size bull, for a while The Star switched to publishing police estimates.
One year, after that switch, several of us helping with the 18th and Vine Festival decided among ourselves that 5000 people probably passed through the district for the weekend event. On Sunday evening, as the festival was winding down, we offered to police officers working as security some hot dogs. No, we shouldn’t, they said. Go ahead, we told them, we’ll just throw them out otherwise. As the grateful officers finished the hot dogs, one asked us, “So what do you want for your crowd estimate? 15,000?” Sure, 15,000 sounded good. And 15,000 people was the official published crowd estimate for that year’s 18th and Vine Festival.
Published crowd estimates to jazz events today today feel more credible. In part because it’s easier to count a smaller crowd at a shorter event.
Last year, The Kansas City Star published that 8000 people attended Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival. 4000 people bought tickets and 4000 were there free (sponsors, volunteers, etc.), the article reported. I attended, and those numbers feel about right. It was a year when the originally announced headliner (George Duke) died, forcing a talent and promotion reboot. That’s an incredibly tough gut kick from which to recover. But if you accept that the range of music offered truly fits a self-described jazz and blues festival, organizers staged a stellar event.
This year, the weather cooperated perfectly. Promotion was excellent, from a persistent online presence, through printed posters and handouts, to media appearances, to ads, to billboards (let’s be honest: by comparison, promotion for the Prairie Village Jazz Festival, which I help with, looks embarrassing). The festival faced unexpected competition from a Royals playoff game, but that might be competition for an October festival forevermore. For the 2014 Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival, the stars aligned.
I’ve seen no announcement of attendance numbers. But the crowd appeared smaller than last year.
I’ll argue lack of focus. I’ll argue that booking acts across a broad musical spectrum, apparently in the hopes of attracting a broader audience, leads to an insufficient focus on any music style and a blurred identity.
Lucky Peterson was the main stage blues headliner. His performance was terrific. But it was a mid-afternoon show before maybe a few hundred fans. It wasn’t enough for a blues aficionado to justify spending $25 on this festival.
Roy Hargrove was the main stage jazz headliner. His show was outstanding. But as the only main stage jazz act, in an early evening time slot, it wasn’t enough to draw a preponderance of jazz fans, no matter what the event is titled.
A few years ago, this revived festival attracted its biggest crowd for the pop group War. The audience that filled the lawn that night came to hear a live performance of The Cisco Kid and other songs still played on the radio by the last vestiges of the original group, or they came for the festival experience. But they didn’t come for jazz or blues. It’s the same reason those 1980s Spirit festivals booked groups like The Temptations.
And there’s the image this event is building. It’s an outstanding music festival. The staging, organization and promotion are as professional as any festival you’ll find. But by trying to be a music festival with a broad appeal, I see a festival that has diluted its appeal. You can argue that a $25 ticket is a bargain for this much music. But you can also argue that $25 is a push for a jazz fan when offering this little headline stage jazz.
The current format appears to have reached its potential in audience appeal. If this event wants to be recognized as a jazz and blues festival, focus on jazz and blues. Give those listeners more reason to come and they will. If the Prairie Village Jazz Festival can draw thousands of fans to a suburban park on a Saturday night to hear jazz, this festival can surely draw a bigger crowd to one of the music’s key birthplaces.
There is a place in Kansas City for a major jazz festival. No event will again presume to claim 100,000 fans. But the tickets sold at Kansas City’s 18th and Vine Jazz and Blues Festival and The Prairie Village Jazz Festival combined wouldn’t fill Starlight Theater for a night. They’re both relatively minor events in Kansas City’s music equation. Done right, with the proper focus and at the right location, this city will support a more significant celebration of jazz and blues. We did before. We would again.
After all, it was Count Basie who walked our streets, not the Cisco Kid.