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Litchfield Jazz Festival Celebrates 15th Anniversary with Blockbuster Lineup

Performers at festival in Kent, CT to include Dave Brubeck, Bela Fleck, Anat Cohen, Gerald Clayton and others.

Matt Wilson by Jimmy Katz
Terell Stafford

This year the Litchfield Jazz Festival celebrates its 15th Anniversary with a star-studded lineup as well as a change in venues. The festival takes place August 6-8 at the Springs Center and grounds of Kent School in Kent, Connecticut. Among the artists appearing at the festival this year are: Dave Brubeck Quartet; Denise Thimes; Gabriel Alegria Afro-Peruvian Sextet; Gerald Clayton Trio; Dave Samuels Caribbean Jazz Project; Mario Pavone Orange Double Tenor Sextet; All-Star Cannonball Adderley Tribute, featuring Wess Anderson, Terell Stafford, Benny Green, Matt Wilson, and Joanna Pascale; Arturo O’Farrill Afro Latin Jazz Orchestra; Aaron Weinstein; Avery Sharpe Trio; Jane Bunnett & the Spirits of Havana; Anat Cohen Trio; Béla Fleck, Zakir Hussain and Edgar Meyer.

The festival also has a large educational component with the Litchfield Jazz Camp taking place from July 11 until August 6, when the festival starts. Guest artist at the camp, geared to teaching jazz at all levels to youth, is guitarist Pat Martino. The list of teachers at the camp is nearly as star-studded as the festival lineup, with Don Braden as music director, and artists such as Junior Mance, Charli Persip, Henry Johnson, Dave Stryker, Matt Wilson, Clare Daly, Sheila Jordan, Carla Cook and many others serving as faculty.

The festival was founded and organized by Vita Muir, a dynamo of woman whose passion for the music and its artists is nearly unbounded. Muir is assisted by her daughter Lindsey Turner, but it’s clear that the festival is largely a product of Muir’s vision, which she explains in a lengthy interview with JT.

Muir believes strongly that the Litchfield Jazz Festival is unique in its approach. “The festival follows a formula that I don’t see at other festivals. It may be there but I haven’t been able to abstract it. My objective is to present an excellent festival. That’s number one. Next I want to honor people who are legendary. In this year’s case we’re dedicating the festival to Dave Brubeck in his 90th year.”

The festival is about more than legends however. “Every year I introduce people who need introductions. The first person I did that with was Diana Krall in 1996. Nobody had ever heard of her. It was her American festival debut. I’ve done that sort of thing ever since. I did it with Brad Mehldau, with Jane Monheit. Jane played for us when she was 20 or 21 and came back again last year at the age of 30. It’s really a very wonderful thing.”

In between the legends and the newcomers are the artists who are simply doing good things. “I provide decent paying gigs for people who are out there doing it. I look to see who people are interested in or who are exciting to me. I don’t buy a pig in a poke.”

Muir believes that programming has a great deal to do with audience development. “I also see the festival as a teaching tool because I think one of the problems for the future of jazz is that too much of it is in boxes, like so many other things. You have people who only go to traditional jazz festivals. You have people that only go to outsider jazz festivals and so forth. What I’m trying to do is present the whole scope of what is jazz. And of course it’s so expansive that you go on to do this for years. In every festival of ours there’s somebody pushing the envelope a little bit there are Latin players, there are different styes of jazz. What happens is people come to you and say ‘I don’t know about that act’ or ‘I didn’t like that act so much,” but they’re listening. And the next time when they come, that’s not strange. Mario Pavone is a case in point. For people who wanted straight-ahead jazz on the first festival, I handed them Mario Pavone and they weren’t too happy [laughing]. By the third time he appeared, they were giving him a standing ovation. People are persuaded to open their ears because they’re sitting there anyway. And now they’ve heard it and they’re more open to a different style.”

Muir cites classical music as a model for how audiences can be taught to open their ears. “When Stravinsky played the Firebird Suite for the first time in New York, he played it and then he said to the audience, ‘For anybody who woud like to hear this again, I will play it al over again when the program is over. And that’s what he did. And people sat and listened and got much more out of it the second time because you have to begin to adjust your expectations and your listening.”

The formula does have a bottom line however. “It’s a business and I have to keep it alive. So I usually have a name artist that I think will be generally recognizable that will be slightly out of the mainstream. For example, I have Bela Fleck this year. It’s a good thing to do. It stretches people a little bit.”

There’s more to her unique “formula” for a successful festival in Litchfield. “I always seek out interesting vocalists. This year I’m introducing one that very few people know but whom I’ve been watching for the last four years. Her name is Denise Thimes from St. Louis. She’s really good, but she hasn’t had the exposure and I hope that this helps to advance her career.”

Education is a very important component of the festival. “The camp is the teaching arm of the festival and the festival is the presentation arm of the camp. It’s an opportunity for me to have students play publicly and to have students hear people live that they otherwise might not have heard. Also, while the artists are there, we’ll have them do master classes. People get to see these artists up close and personal.”

Muir has found that it’s important to bring the audience to the artists in a way that’s inclusive and inviting. “One thing we’ve seen in our surveys is that people don’t attend jazz performances because they think it’s for the select few and that they don’t know anything. They feel dumb, so they don’t come. We’re trying de-mystify jazz for people and show them that it’s many things and all you have to do is listen. You don’t have to know anything. You just have to be willing to listen.”

She cites a new partnership with Divas World Productions, an organization in Texas, as a prime example of what can be done in the area of audience development. “Through them, we’re bringing Delfeayo Marsalis down a week or two before the festival to do a concert in the community, basically a ‘What is Jazz’ concert. He’ll do classes with the kids in the daytime. That’s what that organization is about. That’s what Defeayo is about. And that’s what our festival is all about: To make jazz more accessible to more people. While you’re doing it, you’re keeping the field alive at the same time. So it’s a win win for everybody. That educational swath runs up the middle of everything we do and it always has.”

The festival has named Matt Wilson its official artist-in-residence this year. Muir explains that his role is evolving. “We’re going to expand that next year. We did it a little late, so we couldn’t do it as fully developed as we’d like. We’re going to have Matt do some talks with people who are there, like Dave Brubeck. And during the year, we’ll have him come back and do master classes and teaching work. I would like to create a longer thread across the year for this kind of music. But the idea is to have him interview people and bring information forward so that the audience can hear that they might not have known.”

She says that Wilson was a perfect fit for the festival. “I have worked with Matt for years. He and Terell Stafford are the best clinicians that I’ve ever seen. Matt is amazing. His ability to communicate with people and to convey ideas is incredible. And he’s funny and he’s intelligent. He holds the record for appearing more times on the Litchfield Jazz Festival than anybody, because he plays with everybody. So this is our 15th Anniversary and he this will be his 16th performance at Litchfield. It was a natural to have him as artist-in-residence. And I’d like to have him do it again next year.”

The economy has taken its toll on many festivals, as far as both ticket sales and sponsorship support, but Muir says that for Litchfield, Mother Nature has been a more significant factor. “Really the weather affects us more than the economy. Last year we had the rainstorms of the century. That was a bit of a nightmare. Even with that, we had a little over 4,000 people there, which wasn’t too bad. We moved from Goshen to Kent. This year we’re doing the mainstage indoors, in their spring center, which doubles as a hockey rink. It’s got a nice wooden feeling that we know how to handle with the sound. I’d like to see it [the attendance] be more like six to seven thousand people.”

One barometer for the success of the festival has been the camp, of which Muir is understandably proud. “The camp is ahead of where it was last year at this time. I am assuming that will continue. The economy does not seem to affect that at all. The camp has such an extraordinary reputation and such amazing teachers. Matt is teaching, along with Vincent Gardner and Claudio Roditi. It’s pretty amazing. We are still able to offer scholarships to some students who can’t afford to pay. We take students of all ages, though most are teenagers. It’s a formula that I don’t think anyone else follows. I don’t think there is a camp attached to a festival the way that ours is. Not a festival of our stature anyway. We give 20-30% of our students support. Students recommend other students. Teachers recommend students.”

Although people come from all over the country to attend, the festival draws its audience mostly from the New England area. Muir says that 58% of the audience came from Connecticut itself. The festival is located less than two hours from New York City and a little over two hours from Boston. The festival even has an arrangement with the train folks, so that people from NYC or Westchester County can take a train to Kent and get a free shuttle bus to the festival.

As passionate as she is about programming and educational outreach, Muir is just as obsessed with surveys, her own and others’. Muir feels that it’s crucial to know your audience – who they are, where they come from and what they want. As far as the age demographics, aging baby-boomers comprise the festival’s core audience, with about half of the audience between the age of 51 and 60. “We’re building a younger audience,” Muir claims, citing the work with the camp and other outreach programs. And although she’s heard all the surveys and claims about the jazz audience being primarily male, Muir finds that it’s usually the female who buys the tickets.” The price of those tickets start at just $29, which is a remarkable price for the amount of music on-site.

Indeed, ticket sales are important to a festival like Litchfield, whose location makes it more difficult to garner high level sponsorship support. “We don’t have any corporations here in this state, except insurance companies and they only give to stuff in Hartford. So we’re on our own. We get mostly in-kind support. We don’t have a title sponsor. We don’t have anyone who gives us $50,000 or anything like that. So it’s hard, but we structure it in the end so it works out. But you have to be fast on your feet. There’s a lot of tap-dancing in this business.”

Knowing how hands-on Muir is with her own festival and its programming, I wondered what artists she personally was looking forward to hearing in August. No surprise that she started reeling off names. If the tape hadn’t run out, she’d probably still be naming favorites. “I’m really looking forward to this Cannonball Adderley tribute. It’s Wess Anderson’s project he did for Lincoln Center. I’m introducing a singer with them: Joanna Pascale. This is the only former student that Terell hired as a teacher at Temple. And I’m looking forward to seeing Arturo O’Farrill, whom I had heard at the Detroit Jazz Festival. Jane Bunnett is here for the third time. She does exactly what I do in terms of finding and introducing new talent. And she never takes the credit for it.”

Muir has always made the rounds of jazz festivals, events and even cruises, so I wondered what she saw at other festivals that bothered her. She didn’t hesitate a second to name her pet peeve. “Many have little or any respect to deal with the bleed-through, the sound from one stage to another. I find that maddening. We stagger our sets so that doesn’t happen.”

For more information about the festival and the camp, you can go to the festival web site or call 860-361-6285.

Originally Published