Yvonne Ervin, Founder of the Tucson Jazz Festival, Dies at 59

Succeeding in a wide array of roles over her career, she was a tireless advocate for jazz

Yvonne Ervin and Enzo Capua at the 2011 JJA awards ceremony at City Winery in NYC image 15
Jim Eigo

Yvonne Ervin with Enzo Capua of the Umbria Jazz Festival at the 2011 JJA awards ceremony at City Winery in NYC

Yvonne Ervin, a jazz journalist, photographer, musician, fundraiser, promoter, broadcaster, and educator who was the founder and executive director of the Tucson Jazz Festival, died Dec. 26 at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix, Ariz. She was 59.

Her death was confirmed to the Arizona Daily Star by her husband, Alan Hershowitz, who said that the cause of death was a heart attack following liver transplant surgery. Ervin had been battling hepatitis A since October.

Ervin was a hardworking and extremely accomplished advocate for jazz. In addition to her work with the Tucson Jazz Festival, she was the editor of Hot House magazine; executive director of the Western Jazz Presenters Network; treasurer of the Santa Cruz Alliance for the Arts; and vice president of the Jazz Journalists Association. She had previously been secretary of the executive board of the International Association of Jazz Educators (IAJE) and vice president of the American Federation of Jazz Societies. A certified fundraising executive (CFRE), she was also a frequent artist and audience development consultant to jazz festivals and nonprofit jazz and arts advocacy and education programs.

Yvonne Ervin was born Sept. 14, 1959 in Springfield, Ill., where she was raised. As a child she played clarinet, eventually switching to alto and then tenor saxophone. In October 1973, she “booked a band for the first time” (as she noted on her Facebook account)—for her freshman class dance at Springfield High School.

Ervin matriculated at Illinois State University in 1979, then at the University of Arizona in 1981, where she completed a double major in journalism and music performance. After graduating, she made Tucson her home, working as a reporter for the Arizona Daily Star. She then narrowed the scope of her journalistic career to writing about jazz, going on to write a jazz column for Tucson Weekly, host a jazz broadcast at KUAZ-FM, and conduct interviews of more than 150 jazz musicians for local and national publication.

She became vice president of the American Federation of Jazz Societies while still in her mid-twenties, and in 1989 became executive director at the Tucson Jazz Society and the Western Jazz Presenters Network. Her arts advocacy was not limited to jazz; she served as marketing director for the Arizona Dance Theatre and the Tucson Symphony Orchestra.

Ervin moved to New York in 1998, living there for 13 years and working in development for such organizations as TheNext.org, Urban Assembly, and the Stanley Isaacs Neighborhood Center. She also began writing for Hot House, eventually becoming an editor, before returning in 2011 to Tucson to become director of development for the University of Arizona’s Confluencecenter for Creative Inquiry.

In addition to the Tucson Jazz Festival, which began in January 2015, Ervin also founded the long-running women’s jazz festival Primavera: A Celebration of Women in the Arts, as well as the binational Mingus Hometown Music Festival in Nogales, Ariz.

A staunch proponent of jazz and arts education, Ervin was a visiting lecturer on jazz history at the University of Arizona—and fiercely proud of her alma mater. “Still in hospital,” she wrote in her final Facebook posting on Dec. 9, “but I just know that if UA Basketball wins I will feel much better.”

On Dec. 27, the Tucson Jazz Music Foundation announced the establishment of the Yvonne Ervin Jazz Music Memorial Scholarship for Girls, which will be open to girls age 10-17. “She was an advocate for ‘jazz music education’ and looked for ways to ‘empower girls and women in jazz,’” the Foundation said on its website. “We will do our best to continue her work with our youth.”