In Rochester, Jazz Vs. Festival

The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival logo. i i
Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival
The Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival logo.
Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival

How do you attract over 160,000 people to a jazz festival located in a city of 210,000?

Last Sunday, Rochester, N.Y.'s Democrat and Chronicle published a nice package of articles regarding the city's upcoming Xerox Rochester International Jazz Festival. There were a lot of relevant pieces: show recommendations from two staff music critics, a nice year-by-year timeline, a profile of (former Tonight Show) guitarist Kevin Eubanks, a short video profile of local bassist and singer Katie Ernst, two stories on festival superfans — one live sketch artist, one couple of obsessive online documentarians — plus schedules and maps and guides to attending the event. Lots of stuff, and even more since then.

Oh, and the festival began today.

But the business side of things got the biggest story, and perhaps deservedly so. The festival celebrates its 10th anniversary this year; the first year saw 15,000 attendees, and last year's attracted 162,000, according to the paper. So there was a nice long profile of the two producers behind the fest, John Nugent and Marc Iacona. (They're both musicians, if that matters to anyone — Nugent, a saxophonist, booked himself a gig in front of a jazz quartet and chamber orchestra.) There was even an staff editorial about that profile and the lessons therein.

Among the praises the editorial heaped upon the business acumen of Nugent and Iacona:

Lesson two: Grow a thick skin. Criticisms such as "there's not enough jazz" don't stop organizers from catering to a variety of musical tastes. How can anyone argue that tactic doesn't work, given the growth in audience?

It seems odd to grow a jazz event with music which is not jazz, but as it turns out, it's probably the biggest branding issue with the modern big-time jazz festival. It can be imperfectly described as a struggle of Jazz vs. Festival, one which has been the subject of some jazz blogosphere discussion this year. Do you super-serve the core audience with almost exclusively mainstream-to-adventurous Jazz? Or do you care more that there's a massive Festival with huge turnout for acts which mainstream audiences care about?

This year's Rochester headliners are Elvis Costello, Natalie Cole, Bela Fleck, (Beatles cover band) The Fab Faux, k.d. lang and Chris Botti — acts that many dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans would barely consider to be jazz, if at all. Those names were announced in March, plus other pop acts and the return of a "Roots & Americana" stage. This shift toward pop headliners parallels that of huge jazz festivals in Montreal, Ottawa and New Orleans. In the Jazz vs. Festival issue, the Rochester festival has chosen the latter.

Say what you will about that; here, it also proves to be a "rising tide lifts all boats" strategy. More recently, the Rochester Festival unveiled its full lineup, and as you can see, the core majority of sets are not only jazz, but diverse, well-programmed jazz. There are bands of all ages, bands from all over, bands which dyed-in-the-wool jazz fans will be genuinely excited about. There are a lot of them.

Rochester — like many other huge jazz festivals — books headliners which hardcore jazz people might shy away from. That gives the festival more revenue to spend on hiring bands which hardcore jazz people would see.

And the festival, like several others in its position, does make that investment. Paul Dodd — the fellow profiled in the Democrat and Chronicle for his online archive of annotated photos from every single Rochester festival — made an interesting comment after a show in 2008:

Leader/drummer, Jae Sinnett, reminded us how lucky we are to have jazz at our Jazz Fest. He said, "Compare yourselves to fifty other major cities and look at the line-up of their jazz festivals". Here we were worried that the promoters were bringing in too many mainstream music acts. I guess we're doing better than we knew. Thank John Nugent when you see him darting around.

So it's not exactly that Jazz is at odds with Festival. Indeed, there are other ways to throw a sizable and meaningful jazz festival which barely even touch this dichotomy. You can more aggressively court corporate sponsorship, large private donations and/or government funds — the Chicago and Detroit Jazz Festivals are free to the public because of this. You can also pay bands less: The Winter Jazzfest is able to operate this way, since it's essentially a showcase for the concurrent APAP Conference, where buzz is also a currency.

All three of those events are very well programmed. But none are nearly as huge as Rochester is: nine days, 285 concerts, the aforementioned 162,000 people. And a Beatles tribute band headlining something called a "jazz festival" won't stop being a bit weird, either.

Anyway, there's a lot more than this which goes into producing a massive jazz festival. You should read the Democrat and Chronicle stories for a deeper look. Here's another link to all of them.

I will point one more thing out, though. The reason we have this branding issue is that jazz — at least a certain kind of jazz — often isn't popular enough today to attract the sorts of massive paying audiences that can balance the ledgers of a massive jazz festival. Addressing this crisis is the only way Jazz vs. Festival will ever completely become a non-issue.

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