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JT Notes: Raising the Audience

Anchored by the massive Jazz & Blues Festival Guide, the issue you have in your hands has traditionally been the largest of the year for us. For reasons that entirely escape me, I’ve always had the assignment of tracking down those festival listings. Like a childhood nickname, the task has stuck with me through 16 years and as many title changes. Funny, but so little really changes with the festivals. Most are ongoing entities that recur year after year in basically the same time, place and jazz style. However, what has changed is what the festivals do beyond performances. We’re seeing more and more festivals giving back to their communities through outreach and educational programs. My theory? It’s the women’s fault. They shattered the glass ceiling and redfined what festivals do.

Not to say that all of the men who have traditionally run festivals are sexist or selfish. George Wein, the founding father of the jazz festival, has always nurtured women as producers within his organization, including the late Marie St. Louis, Alexa Birdsong, Deborah Ross, Darlene Chan, and Nalini Jones. And Tim Jackson of the Monterey Jazz Festival has stepped up that festival’s educational programs in a way that his old school predecessor Jimmy Lyons never could have managed. But the times they are a-changin’ out there. All over the country, there are now women programming or organizing jazz festivals, including Chan in Los Angeles, Penny Tyler in Chicago, Carol Stone in Cape May, Vita Muir in Litchfield, Ronnie Wells in DC, and many more. I can’t imagine that any of them would appreciate being singled out as women festival producers. And it doesn’t surprise me (or likely, them) that they’ve smashed the glass ceiling. What has surprised me is how they are redefining what jazz festivals do. I see it at the East Coast Jazz Festival, which is not only filled with performances by school bands, but features a scholarship award. Or at the Litchfield Jazz Festival, where the educational programs for young people are a vital part of the programming.

According to Muir, it’s just good business. “I would often hear people at a jazz cruise or conference sucking their thumbs about the shrinking jazz audience. And how the audience is getting old. Meanwhile, I’m raising the audience.” She then proceeds to tell me in detail about young people who have participated in her program-how they came to her, what they learned, what they’re doing now. It’s obvious that she views this as more than putting on a show. “I’m half social worker, half entrepreneur!” She knew when she first started the festival as a concert series that she would mount a jazz camp for kids. She started with 35 students and now she expects about 300 to participate this summer. And, she’s just as proud of her adult students, including a middle-age housewife who studied singing and a 74-year-old man who took up cornet. “It’s so rewarding for me,” she says. When I tell her my theory that women have brought a sense of nurturing to festival programming and organization, her response is emphatic. “Well, I think that there’s a moral obligation to do this. If you can enrich someone’s life? And develop an audience? That’s a no-brainer.” Yep, things are changing.

Originally Published