Jazz Fests Boost Musicians, Fans, Local Economies Since the very first jazz festival — at Newport, R.I., in 1954 — the events have been high-profile showcases for musicians. But they can also be important economic engines for the communities that host them.
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Jazz Fests Boost Musicians, Fans, Local Economies

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Jazz Fests Boost Musicians, Fans, Local Economies

Jazz Fests Boost Musicians, Fans, Local Economies

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

Jazz festivals have become a tradition punctuating the end of summer. This Labor Day weekend, there are free jazz festivals in Atlanta, Chicago, Detroit and Pittsburg to name just a few.

Howard Mandel reports they not only provide valuable showcases for musicians, they also generate needed income for the communities that host them.

HOWARD MANDEL: For 29 years, the city of Chicago has presented a free jazz festival. Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Jazz Institute of Chicago, which programs the event, says the city goes to the trouble because the fest is not just for locals, it's made Chicago a tourist destination, and generated income for everything from hotels to parking garages to restaurants to babysitters.

Ms. LAUREN DEUTSCH (Executive Director, Jazz Institute of Chicago): The non-admission based money that comes out of their pockets ranges from about $27 for local people who buys snacks and refreshments, et cetera, and about $46 per out-of-town tourists. So just based on those numbers, you could see that a festival like the jazz festival, or the blues festival generate a lot of revenue for the city.

MANDEL: The benefits of jazz festivals have not always been publicly acknowledged. But the man who really established them says that these affairs have long been attractive, and so have endured.

Unidentified Male: I do want to thank for, I know, for the musicians and all of you who've had a very wonderful time today for the direction and assistance and cooperation of George Wein.

MANDEL: George Wein produced the first jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island in 1954.

Mr. GEORGE WEIN (Founder, Newport Jazz Festival): Cities like jazz festivals and they will support jazz festivals. And jazz fans have a way of having friends in city hall to get a little money to sponsor a festival. And then local sponsors will put up a little money for a festival. And next thing you know, they have enough money to do it.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: Of course, musicians like them, too. Playing to a large crowd is best, says guitarist and vocalist Lionel Loueke, who was born in Benin, West Africa, and has recently been on tour with Herbie Hancock.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

Mr. LIONEL LOUEKE (Jazz musician): For me, I feel more comfortable playing in front of a big audience. I'm not the type of person who get nervous, but one thing that would make me nervous is when we're playing in front of two person or three person. 50,000? Definitely not.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: Producer George Wein identifies another reason musicians enjoy festivals both in the U.S. and abroad.

Mr. WEIN: I think they make most of their money on the festival circuit. The ones that can crack that circuit, the fee is a legitimate fee and musicians make a legitimate price for their work for the night. And there are a lot of jazz festivals - hundreds of jazz festivals. A musician may work 10 or 15 or 20 festivals in a year, all year long, and that's, maybe, a major source of his income.

MANDEL: While jazz festivals seem to offer golden opportunities to artists who can crack the circuit, they also operate on tight budgets. Wein knows that production companies like his, struggle to profit from jazz festivals and most of them depend on corporate sponsorship.

Mr. WEIN: I know we could not make it at all if we did not have JVC, and that's been with for 22 years. We couldn't exist. We created the sponsored-type approach in actually giving the name of the event to the sponsor. Of course, we were criticized for that, but who cares? We kept the festival alive.

MANDEL: Even free festivals like Chicago's have to book name acts to attract large audiences, and Lauren Deutsch says that can be expensive.

Ms. DEUTSCH: Those that get the really incredible fees are those that have the national and international recognition to command fees of upwards of $35,000. But you can see that with a budget of $200,000, we can't book too many $35,000-acts. It's really a strain in our budget. And then there's this paradigm that I think and believe is true: in every city which has that, those wonderful local jazz musicians are not able to get the same kind of fees as the out-of-town acts. For them, it's a reasonably good payday.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: Composer and trumpeter Charles Tolliver leads an 18-man big band, the kind of group that makes a big statement for a big outdoor event like a jazz festival, and also the kind of group that has always been costly.

Mr. CHARLES TOLLIVER (Jazz Musician): Because it's simply because of the numbers. You have 16 mouths to feed. The great ones, the historical ones like Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson - I don't know how they did it.

MANDEL: In the 1930 swing era, when the big bands of Ellington, Basie, Benny Goodman and others crisscrossed the United States on constant tour, their success was based on music for dancing. That's not the case today, for Charles Tolliver says you still have to keep the audiences happy.

Mr. TOLLIVER: It's one thing to get to the festival. It's another thing to come off musically there. If you got, you know, two, three, four, five thousand people sitting there, at least 50 percent of your repertoire has to get through.

(Soundbite of jazz music)

MANDEL: Guitarist Lionel Loueke agrees the music has to work for the audience.

Mr. LOUEKE: I definitely choose my repertoire in function of the audience. You know what, I - if it's a festival, probably we'll go for something - for general audience.

(Soundbite of music)

MANDEL: Lionel Loueke cracked the festival circuit through his work with Herbie Hancock and Terence Blanchard. And for those who can get in, festivals are an important way for musicians to reach audiences. But Lauren Deutsch says festivals - and especially free events like Chicago's - are just as important for building audiences for jazz.

Ms. DEUTSCH: That's one of the real values of the free events, of the big festivals - they can bring their families. That's the real key element in generating the next generation of audience for jazz is you can't really expose them unless you can bring them to experience the event. There is really nothing that compares to experiencing jazz live.

MANDEL: And for the jazz musician, the lift comes from relaxed, enthusiastic crowds. Although, as Charles Tolliver says, the size of the event is not the main thing anymore than the number of players he's working with.

Mr. TOLLIVER: It doesn't matter whether it's a big band or a small group, as long as you are presenting the music. I mean, obviously, you know, we need to make a decent living out of it, but it's as important to be able to present it and feel good about it.

MANDEL: Jazz festivals are, by definition, feel-good events, so much so that they've outgrown the summer season and continue all-year long.

For NPR News, I'm Howard Mandel.

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