Jazz festival corporatization reflects apathy for the genre

Years of innovation through suffering are sacrificed in the name of profit

Graphic by Kelly Campbell.

Jazz is a truly unique art form. The result of years of suffering from slaves in North and Latin America, its roots lie deep in oppression.

Its history began under slavery with field hollers and work songs, later turning into spirituals. After slavery was abolished and African-Americans gained access to instruments, the tradition continued in the form of country blues, ragtime, and later boogie-woogie, Harlem stride, and gypsy jazz.

All the while, early jazz musicians like Louis Armstrong were congregating into hubs – namely Chicago and New Orleans – to create the first era of jazz bands: Dixieland. This progressed into jazz orchestras among the likes of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Glenn Miller. Subsequently, the genre branched off into countless interpretations, ranging from bebop, cool, modal, avant-garde, and free jazz, to Latin jazz, as well as funk, soul, R&B, and blues rock.

In the late 1950s, along with a resurgence of the genre, jazz festivals began to pop up in cities of historical significance, beginning in Rhode Island in 1954 with the Newport Jazz Festival. These gave the genre a platform much larger than many typical venues would have, creating public awareness among those not previously exposed to the art form.

However, problems became evident early on. The Newport festival snubbed jazz innovators like Max Roach and Charles Mingus, paying them far less than the more mainstream musicians on the bill – in turn driving them to boycott the 1960 festival and create their own event. This breakaway was sparked the mass corporatization and, in turn, poor leadership of the mainstream festivals.

Unfortunately, these issues persist today.

For the 2018 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, musicians and bands including Rod Stewart, Jimmy Buffett, and Aerosmith are prominently featured as headliners. The Montreux Jazz Festival prominently features Elton John on its 2018 bill. At home, Jazz Winnipeg is currently promoting, among others, The Flaming Lips.

If these are going to be the main attractions to these events, why bother calling it a jazz festival at all?

With headliners like these, you can be rest assured where the majority of funding for the festival is going: non-local, non-jazz musicians. Jazz musicians – and local talent in the jazz community – lose out year after year. The perfect local example of this phenomenon is the TD Winnipeg International Jazz Festival.

Originally called the Jazz Winnipeg Festival, it first kicked off in 1989. Jazz Winnipeg was – and still is – the non-profit that organizes the event, which was created by the grassroots organization. Between 1989 and 2009, some of the notable performers included McCoy Tyner, Dave Brubeck, Herbie Hancock, Kenny Garrett Quartet, and Al Green.

In late 2000s, Jazz Winnipeg welcomed the financial support of several sponsors, including title sponsor and local jazz radio station 99.1 COOL-FM. This lasted for several years until TD Bank Financial Group replaced the station as the title sponsor leading up to the 2010 festival. Then-Jazz Winnipeg executive producer Paul Nolin called the switch “a huge step for Jazz Winnipeg.”

Perhaps in the short term it was. The next few festivals saw the inclusion of jazz greats Sonny Rollins, Wynton Marsalis, George Benson, and Bobby McFerrin. In the long term, however, the verdict has come in: a change in sponsorship – being backed by financial interests – has proven detrimental to the music.

In fall of 2016, Jazz Winnipeg executive producer Paul Nolin stepped down and was replaced by Michael Falk. Some of his credentials included working as the artistic director for the West End Cultural Centre, producer of the indie music pop-up party SpaceLand, and fronting local indie band Les Jupes. To say his hiring was a miscalculation on the part of the board would be a gross understatement.

With a huge financial institution sponsoring the festival, and in turn, a primary focus on monetization of the event, it is little wonder someone with no apparent background in jazz music and the Winnipeg jazz community can become the artistic director of a major Canadian jazz festival.

Following the now-fundamental focus on moving as many bodies and selling as many drinks as possible, the shift of attention from local and mainstream jazz to indie and rock artists has been noticeable.

During Falk’s Jan. 19 masterclass with University of Manitoba Jazz Studies students, he cited payouts between $50,000 and $100,000 dollars per night for headlining acts. Yet, when addressing student ensembles who submitted an application to perform at the festival, all he did was ridicule their promotional picture. If the group will not sell thousands of seats and drinks, and you cannot market the performance like a brand-new car, the ensemble clearly will not be hired.

Of the initial list of headliners released by Jazz Winnipeg, only one of the five artists, Chris Botti, even closely resembles jazz – a term so generously employed here that one should be clear to deduct it on a tax return. And while these folk, pop, and rock artists are conceivably being paid between $50,000 and $100,000 dollars per night, it should not be surprising  why – as revealed in a recent meeting between festival organizers and union members – Falk has paid local musicians as little as $14.29 per player, per show.

And while some younger and beginning musicians and groups may play for virtually nothing, experienced local musicians simply pass on insulting offers. All the while, a once-diverse festival gets less and less diverse in terms of jazz and local participation, and more and more profit-focused.

If board members would like to change course and take such concerns seriously, the artistic director must be replaced with someone who has a learned background in jazz. An artistic director for a major jazz festival should not require listening parties in order to understand the basics. They should know this music inside and out.

Next, the focus of the festival should be primarily musicians of the jazz genre – headliners should include living legends like Ron Carter, Roy Haines, Wayne Shorter, and Dick Hyman. This is not to say other, jazz-influenced genres – namely soul, R&B, funk, and blues rock – should not be included. They absolutely should. But not as the primary focus and main beneficiaries of funding.

Finally, the leadership must once again reach out to the disregarded and underpaid local musicians.

In choosing to disregard the concerns of the Winnipeg jazz community, Jazz Winnipeg has alienated countless musicians and abandoned any attempt to honour jazz culture. To properly preserve the art form of jazz in our city, Jazz Winnipeg must understand that it has an obligation to make sure it accurately and respectfully promotes its traditions and artists to the fullest.