Monday, June 11, 2007

Festival Funk

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.

3 comments:

Tim said...

I agree James.

Festivals are so scared to take chances any more. Seeking out new artists or booking new, groundbreaking acts is almost unheard of...they would have to hire someone with their nose to the grindstone and their finger on the pulse.

As a fan, I am just glad we get a chance to see the odd interesting act that might not have come through otherwise...personally, I go to see more music outside of festival season...I prefer my patios with just the sound of chatter and maybe some birds.

tim posgate

daryl said...

Back in the days before I was a jazz fan, I paid $60 to see Pink Floyd at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. As I was leaving with the throngs of others I decided, "That's the last stadium show I ever have to see. If I can't see it in a club--up close, where I can drink a beer at the same time--then it's not worth seeing."

I think many jazz fans are now coming to the same conclusions about large festivals. There comes a point where the size of the event becomes simply overwhelming and starts turning the faithful away. There are some excellent artists playing as part of the Toronto and Montreal festivals this year, but you have to search long and hard in the program guides to find them.

This situation is not likely to change, as these events are now far more important as major tourism drivers for the summer season than they are as jazz/cultural events. That is, unless the landscape shifts once again and the major corporate sponsors decide to pull out again.

John Doheny said...

" 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."

I'd like to respectfully suggest that the paradigm has shifted just a bit since those times. There's damn few "jazz basements" left for fans to get out of these days. The fact is, a lot of musicians perform before more people in one day at a major festival than at a years worth of club dates.

I used to be a huge festival fan but I find as the years go by I'm heading towards the curmudgeon camp. I'm starting to believe that jazz should be heard in a place with four walls, a ceiling, and a waiter with a tray of cocktails at the ready, as God in Her wisdom intended. Not sitting out on the hard ground getting eaten by mosquitos, or crammed into a sweltering 'jazz tent' with three thousand other suffering souls.

My wife and I live a short 20 minute walk from the site of the New Orleans jazzfest. This year, we attended that festival for a grand total of three hours a day for two days, and the first of those was mostly because I had a gig there and got two free passes. We just couldn't take the heat and the crowds any longer than that. As a similarly middle aged friend of mine says," I can shake it for about 3 hours. Then it breaks."

As to the programming, I'm noticing it's getting increasingly more difficult to find jazz at jazz festivals these days, in there among all the funk and World Music and questionable pop music bookings. I understand these are budget considerations designed to bring in crowds, and that it's likely some of my own festival gigs have been in part subsidized by Rod Stewart and Emmylou Harris. I just wish people wouldn't insist these bookings are part of some egalitarian push to 'broaden audiences.' I mean, if that was the case, it would work both ways, and we'd be seeing Joe Lovano playing at pop festivals opening for the Cowboy Junkies or something.