Now in it’s third year, this past April’s Center City Jazz Festival took hold like never before! A vibrant line up of artists from throughout the country, including many native Philadelphians, came together to bring the spirit of jazz to the masses. And, when I say masses, I am talking about enormous numbers of people of every color, creed, age, and gender, who crowded the six venues involved in this festival, both inside and out. And, when I say, inside and out, I am talking wall to wall people inside and 50 to 60 people waiting patiently in a long long line outside of each and every venue, hoping to get into any one of the 16 or so completely sold out shows.
The festivals creator, Ernest Stuart, prior to this event was like any other young jazz musician in Philadelphia. An unlikely festival promoter, and graduate of U-Arts, he had helped to put together and also performed regularly at a well known jam session, which happened at Time every Monday. The reasons for this jam session’s eventual/eventful demise should be left as material for another long story written at some later date, but suffice it to say, the scene at Time during and after the Center City Jazz Festival’s after-party/ jam session was something that no Philadelphian has witnessed in that venue, or any other, in quite some Time.
While attending a convening of Philadelphia “jazz”promoters, organized by Homer Jackson and David Haas of The Philadelphia Jazz Project, others and I on this panel learned from a somewhat quiet, but heated Ernest that his reason for creating the Center City Jazz Fest. was his inescapable seething disgust, concerning “the gradual marginalization that jazz is suffering at the hands of some promoters, who claim to be promoters of “jazz”festivals, but have few jazz headliners on their roster! The pop artists they book don’t even try to play anything related to jazz! They just play whatever they would at any other pop festival”. I am paraphrasing here, but you get the point. There were quite a few agreeing head nods (mine among them), followed by a couple of heated exchanges, but in Ernest’s defense, he did warn us all, prior to breaking his silence, that his reasons may offend some of the people in the room……
As well as this, he also disliked the fact that many “jazz”headliners at festivals were chosen based solely on record sales, or “crowd pull”, as opposed to their musical contributions. Ernest wanted to create a jazz festival, which was “like a shot in the arm for the city. A festival where a mass of jazz artists would descend on the city within a single day, and tight radius”.
Another great feature of the Center City Jazz Festival is that it includes many venues, which rarely present jazz, as well as those who do so regularly. It also does not include some others, who do so regularly. At present all the venues who participate in the Center City Jazz Festival do so on a voluntary basis, rather than for reasons of financial stimuli.
I performed at Milk Boy, playing bass as part of Steve Coleman & The Five Elements. Now, I’m not one to “toot our own horn”, but just being frank, this band has performed all of over the world, headlining almost every major jazz festival over the last 30 years at least three to four times, but the Center City Jazz Festival 2014 was the very first time that this band had ever been invited to perform at ANY jazz festival in Philadelphia!
When I arrived at the venue, just in time to catch the end of Justin Faulkner’s set, featuring Mike Boone, and John Swana, it was a task to make it through the huge crowd waiting to get in on the steps. While they were on stage literally killin’it, getting anywhere near the stage was impossible. We also had a large, great and very enthusiastic crowd, as did every other band in the festival. The Kimmel Center Creative Music Program, the only non-professional teenaged ensemble to perform the festival, had a line which started at Chris’and stretched to Broad St.
Simply put, those who have claimed that they are no longer promoting jazz events in the city, or say that “this is an unsustainable model”, due to unenthusiastic audience attendance, are doing quite a few things wrong! This is not rocket science. It’s not the music. It’s not the musicians. It’s not the spaces. It’s not the audience. It’s them! They are part of “The Curatorial Drought”that has swept this city over the last 20 years, where people who know little to nothing of the rich jazz tradition still expect to promote jazz events successfully…….
The thing that makes “jazz”cool, is the fact that it’s alive! Jazz, or whatever you want to call it, is no different than any other living, creative music done well, whether this be Rock, Blues, Pop, Hip-Hop, Techno, Rap, Country, Gospel, Jungle, or whatever based. Without a vibrant community who have the capacity to both respect and support it’s best efforts and exponents, there can be no “scene”, and without an active scene, there can be no living music!
Whatever Ernest Stuart is doing, it’s working!