Monday, March 28, 2016

SoJo Blow

That wasn’t less frequent. That was moribund.

When I last posted seven long weeks ago, I said blog posts would continue though less often. Editing Jam magazine was monopolizing more of my meager mind than I expected.

Nothing like a little stupidity to flush the blogger back out.

Last week, the Overland Park South Rotary joyfully announced that the 27-year old Corporate Woods Jazz Festival, better known as Jazz in the Woods, has morphed into the SoJo Summerfest. Announcing a lineup that boasts country rock, Celtic pop and both Elton John and U2 cover bands, organizers proclaimed in a press release, “As you can see from our talented group of home-grown bands from Kansas City, SoJo Summerfest is definitely not a jazz concert.”

The Corporate Woods Jazz Festival launched in 1990, organized by two people on the board of the 1989 Kansas City Jazz Festival that I led and who were displeased with the direction that event was taking the next year. They found a sympathetic sponsor in Corporate Woods. The festival was eventually handed off to the Rotary which has turned it into a major fundraiser for children’s charities, raising more than $1.5 million over its lifetime. That number, frankly, is both wonderful and amazing.

They’ve stubbed their toes occasionally during their stewardship. Adding a day of country music one year was really dumb (I’m told the country fans spent less money and left a bigger mess than the audience festival organizers had spent a decade cultivating). And they haven’t overwhelmed fans in KC’s jazz community with their emphasis on smooth jazz and R&B.

But the fact is that Jazz in the Woods organizers built the oldest, the biggest and the most financially successful jazz festival in this metropolitan area. Overland Park police pegged attendance at last year’s two-day event at 30,000 people. I was there. That number feels right. And just as importantly, the acts booked drew one of the most racially diverse and integrated audiences I’ve seen at a Kansas City music event this side of Stevie Wonder.

Overland Park South Rotary is in this to raise money for charities. The festival has grown into a wildly successful vehicle for channeling volunteers, engaging and entertaining the public and, most years, meeting that primary goal. But the pending sale of Corporate Woods cost the fest a major sponsor and jeopardized the event’s fundraising abilities.

Wisely, they’ve examined costs. The lavish stage flanked by multi-monitor video screens and outstanding sound may be part of the event’s appeal. But Jazz in the Woods in recent years spent half again as much just on staging as the entire budget of the Prairie Village Jazz Festival. Their stage was imported from another city because nobody in KC stocks anything like it.

Remarkably less wisely, they concluded that the only way to draw a larger crowd was to publicly divorce themselves from the audience they’ve grown over 26 years and to rebrand the event with an insipid name. “SoJo Summerfest is definitely not a jazz concert.”

You can argue whether the smooth jazz, blues, R&B and soul music that dominated 2015’s Jazz in the Woods qualifies it as a jazz event. I say that in broad terms it does. It’s not the kind of music festival Count Basie devotees crave. But you’re not going to raise tens of thousands of dollars in this century by catering to Count Basie devotees. You’re going to raise it through a music event with a distinct and recognizable focus that appeals to an audience from throughout the metropolitan area.

And you can do that without adopting a provincial contraction of a name apparently intended to firmly break the event from its heritage. Jazz in the title doesn’t scare away audiences. Just ask the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival how extensively the word has damaged their event (2015 attendance: 460,000).

Focus is a missing key. I don't know just how hard this festival’s budget was hit, though going to an all local lineup suggests heavy damage. Now there’s no distinctive name to build promotion around. Now the schedule is no more significant than a half dozen other suburban music fests – all with smarter titles – that pepper the region’s summer calendar. And when the lineup ranges from Shades of Jade to Big Time Grain Company (that’s the country rock band), there’s a feeling of scheduling by throwing underwear against a wall and seeing what sticks. There’s no focus. The appeal is simply, come because we’ve been big.

Also, going head-to-head with the Boulevardia festival might not be an act of audience-building genius. Could be that an event on the same days in the West Bottoms doesn’t really compete with an unfocused fest in SoJo. But last year’s Boulevardia claimed bigger crowds and charitable donations than Jazz in the Woods.

The real test may come next year. This year’s event may well draw an audience out of habit. But after experiencing this year, will they return for the 2017 SoJo Summer Mess?

Um, I meant Summer Fest.

No I didn’t.

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