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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 7, No. 9

Festivals and the Sustainability of Jazz

by Philip Ehrensaft / June 1, 2002

Version française...

During the 48 years since George Wein created the first summer jazz festival in Newport, Rhode Island, the skies and tents of the warmer months have become an indispensable pillar of the jazz business. Over 2000 jazz festivals take place on both sides of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. In the United States, one out of every four tickets to a jazz performance is sold at a festival. By some estimates half of the annual income of jazz musicians is earned at festival venues.

While the market for recorded jazz has been relatively flat, and many traditional venues as well as jazz radio programming are facing tough times, the growth in festival attendance has been healthy. Whereas jazz's share of total recording sales in Europe slid to 1.5% last year, annual growth in the festival market continues in the 3%-5% range. In the year 2000, western Europe's 1000 jazz festivals spent US $225 on their own budgets and also generated an equivalent amount in additional local business activity during festival days.

The Size Spectrum

Back in 1954, Wein was a jazz pianist with a bright idea. Now he is a millionaire impresario who runs the biggest jazz show on earth. His Festival Productions enterprise puts on 27 festivals between April and November. Eleven form the circuit of JVC summer jazz festivals in North America that cross over to Paris, Amsterdam, and Warsaw in October. A Japanese edition of the Newport Jazz Festival takes place in August.

Size-wise, the other end of the spectrum is occupied by hundreds of community festivals that typically feature local talent plus one main concert by a name act. If we had an accurate count of the numerous community jazz festivals taking place in urban neighbourhoods and small cities, the "over 2000" figure that I just cited would be a considerable underestimate.

The rise of Le Festival International de Jazz de Montréal into the top rung of the festival hierarchy was impressively fast. André Ménard and Alain Simard organized their first, modest jazz festival on the former site of Expo 67 in 1980. Ambitions for a world-class event were not yet on their mental map. Like Wein, they were exceptional entrepreneurs who saw the opportunities as they arose and organized themselves accordingly. By 1987, however, Wein himself declared that FIJM was the most complete and organized festival in the world.

Most but not all of the large North American festivals function along the economic model pioneered by Wein. Given weak public support for the arts in the United States, half or more of jazz festival budgets usually come from sponsorships by the private sector. There are exceptions: the city of Chicago, for example, finances a major festival with entirely free admission.

Canadian public funding provides a modest increment not usually available south of the border. FIJM receives 7 to 11% of its budget from different levels of government, depending on the year. This is not to be sniffed at: This is a make-it-or-break-it margin in a budget that amounts to $17 million for 2002. But the most important component of FIJM's budget is the half that comes from private sponsors, plus ticket sales, media rights, and concessions.

Innovative Organization

FIJM differs significantly from the predominant North American model in its dual economic structure. The FIJM itself is a nonprofit organization that obtains many of its services from the extremely successful for-profit entertainment conglomerate, Équipe Spectra, that has also been built up by Simard and Ménard. Spectra manages four entertainment venues, including the Spectrum and Metropolis clubs, as well as the Francofolies festival and two newer festivals.

In contrast to Festival Production's specialized team that mounts the same activity in different parts of the world, FIJM has a core year-round staff of only 15 people. As the jazz festival approaches, appropriate permanent staff from other divisions of Spectra come on board. By the time the first night of the festival arrives, 2500 people have been hired. FIJM has a reputation in jazz circles for running an exceptionally efficient ship. Ménard feels that this could not be accomplished if FIJM, like many nonprofit festivals, relied on large numbers of volunteers.

The Artistic Spectrum

The musical orientation of a Wein festival is studiously mainstream. My reading is that this mainly reflects his musical tastes rather than a strategy for maximizing the bottom line and creating alliances with major recording labels. From this perspective, festivals like JVC work hard to recover audiences that were driven away in droves by the cacophonous squeals of "the new thing." The same thing was said, of course, about the bebop revolution that is now the current orthodoxy.

Although I'm not alone in savouring both the avant-garde and mainstream strands of jazz, I think the artistic policies of Wein and similarly inclined impresarios are legitimate. If you're going to risk your money on jazz festivals and work hard hours in the process, you might as well do so for music that you love. People with different tastes can organize different festivals.

Which is exactly what avant-garde musicians have done in New York City. From a home base at Michael Dorf's Knitting Factory, they now preside over the ambitious Visions Festival, mother of all avant-garde festivals. Pulling this off in the world's jazz capital does have a running start, however: musicians' travel involves only subway tokens.

Choosing the music: FIJM

Two musical paths predominate in the more than 100 indoor concerts hat happen over 11 evenings at FIJM: the best of mainstream American jazz, roughly the currents from bebop through electric Miles, plus superb European players who get far too little hearing on this side of the Atlantic.

FIJM has the resources to hire every major and up-and-coming player from Sonny Rollins and Wynton Marsalis on down. If you attend the Montreal festival on a regular basis, you'll literally hear them all, and pay less than you would at any of the big American bashes. You'll also hear them in creative sessions like the invited artist series, where a jazz great puts together different ensembles of his choice over five evenings.

Ménard feels he can get his audience to try out the less familiar Europeans because he has built sufficient confidence by offering the best of what they know. He's right. As a grad student in New York, I absorbed a good dose of the philosophy that "if it ain't happening in New York or Chicago, it ain't happening." Checking out FIJM's European concerts helped me get rid of that prejudice.

The avant-garde side of jazz usually has a modest presence at FIJM. The contemporary jazz series in the basement theatre of le Musée d'Art Contemporain is always interesting. Occasionally a major "out" player like David Murray will be front and centre in the indoor programming. Several Downtown types might grace the Jazz Dans la Nuit series at La Salle Gésu, an absolute gem of a hall for jazz performances. Sometimes they even make it to the Spectrum.

While I'd be even more joyous during the festival if "out" jazz had a greater presence at FIJM, my focus is on the cornucopia of riches that are on the table. Artistic directors cook within the parameters of their own musical preferences and practical constraints. Ménard prepares a fine repast.

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