Thursday, April 24, 2008

Festivals: Pro or Con?

Recently, I was engaged by a prominent Canadian musician in a spirited email exchange about the pros and cons of jazz festivals. His main point was that too many non-jazz artists get gigs that should go to jazz musicians, but an underlying refrain was that festivals give the illusion that a city has a thriving jazz scene, when in fact 90 percent of the year's expenditures on jazz are concentrated in a 10-day or two-week period.

There's little denying either point. You don't have to look too far to find jazz festivals rife with performers like Al Green, Gladys Knight, Leonard Cohen, Billy Joel and others who have – at best – tenuous connections to jazz. And, aside from New York City and one or two other large cities, it's likely that the lineup of any festival you care to name overshadows the jazz gigs you'll find throughout the rest of the year. So does that mean that jazz festivals have outlived their usefulness 54 years after George Wein launched the first one in Newport, Rhode Island?

As my colleague Dan Ouellette points out in the current issue of DownBeat, there is a diminishing number of "name" jazz musicians – players who can draw audiences beyond their regular fan base. That was an issue back in the late-1980s, when I was briefly involved in the administration side of jazz festivals. After you had exhausted the Dizzy Gillespies and Benny Goodmans, where did you go next? Sure, there is always an audience for first-rate artists like Brad Mehldau or John Scofield, but does your father, your spouse or your niece know their names? Who's more likely to make them part with their money and make some time in their schedule: Dave Douglas or Gladys Knight?

I had dinner last night with a friend who's excited that Knight is coming to Ottawa's jazz festival. He's a discerning music fan, and he'll enjoy whatever else he hears at the festival, but it's Knight who'll get him into the park. And that's where festivals really do their work at expanding the tastes of their casual attendees. Among some, jazz still has a reputation of being "hard" music, and only first-hand exposure can overcome that.

As for "stealing" gigs from local musicians, the best festivals I've seen build lots of local content into their lineup (and I have to disagree with those hometown players who think they deserve a prime-time slot or the kind of fee that Wayne Shorter or Maria Schneider can command). What's more, I know of dozens of younger jazz musicians who caught the bug and focused their ambition by being exposed to – and in some cases, jamming with – established artists.

So, yes, sometimes the sound is less than optimal and the audiences often aren't as reverent as you'll find in a club, but jazz festivals pump a lot of revenue into the industry and build audiences. There's probably not a local jazz scene anywhere – even New York City – that couldn't be improved, but I don't think festivals are to blame.

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