Is it time for a new model for jazz festivals?
That question came up this weekend when I was going over a couple of schedules for upcoming events with a friend who I frequently hang with at these things. There’s little doubt about the validity of George Wein’s original idea: essentially, bring together a bunch of musicians on the same stage to get fans out of the hot city and dark "jazz basements" for a couple or three days. More than 50 years later there’s still few things better than lounging outdoors while great music wafts through the air.
But increasingly, festivals have ballooned up to 10 days (two prime weekends) and added layers of programming on side stages and at satellite sites. At some events – Montreal comes to mind above all others – scheduling can prove to be a major headache, as you rush between sites trying to hear everything you want to catch, or worse, miss things. Even when festivals lay things end to end, a few days at one of these events can leave you wrung out and struggling to recall just what you heard. (Back when I was something of a jazz journalism martyr I tried filing more than a dozen stories from a 10-day festival. By the end, I felt like I might explode if I heard one more Monk tune.)
These days I try to take a longer view in festival coverage, but I have the advantage of doing this for fun and profit. What about the average fan? Does the model still work for him or her as festivals increasingly push package deals (“passports”) as a way of maximizing attendance?
I don’t think I’m just being jaded when I look at most festival schedules now and start humming Peggy Lee’s “Is That All There Is?”. There just doesn’t seem to be much creativity in the programming these days at most festivals. Often, it seems to be programming by rote – Who’s on the road? What are the other festivals doing? – without much outreach from artistic director to musician. The result for the jazz fan is akin to surveying a large-but-boring buffet table.
A musical form as creative as jazz deserves a business model that’s equally creative. It’s time for someone to come up with something as innovative and popular as Wein’s Newport model.