The Big Ears Festival returned to Knoxville in a big way in late March, drawing an estimated 30,000 music enthusiasts from across the U.S. and overseas to the eastern Tennessee city after a two-year hiatus caused by COVID.
The dozens of artists featured over the four-day event were arty, cutting-edge types drawn from—and in many cases themselves drawing from—a range of genres. Patti Smith, Kim Gordon, Joe Henry, and Moses Sumney were the closest thing to pop stars among them, each of them far too quirky for the label to really fit. Classical music was represented by the likes of the Bang on a Can All-Stars, the Spektral Quartet, and the Kronos Quartet, the first two of which—like many festival participants—played more than one concert, each involving different collaborators.
John Zorn was kept particularly busy, performing eight sets devoted to an array of his far-ranging projects, among them his metal-influenced band Simulacrum, his Songs for Petra Haden project, his New Masada Quartet and its plus-size variant New Electric Masada, and a solo church organ performance titled The Hermetic Organ.
Another emphasis this year was the music of the Black Caribbean as manifested in New Orleans, Haiti, and Cuba. Ben Jaffe of the Preservation Hall Jazz Band curated a Krewe Du Kanaval that took place in and around one of the festival’s venues, the Mill & Mine, featuring the Preservation Hall band and several others. And Jaffe’s choices weren’t the only artists linked to those three music hubs: New Orleans native Christian Scott aTunde Adjuah performed at Big Ears for the first time; Ches Smith’s We All Break performed selections from its superlative album of Haiti-inspired music; and the namesake stars of the Pedrito Martinez Group and Dafnis Prieto’s Sí o Sí Quartet are both Cuban emigrants. In addition, the world premiere of Ned Sublette’s Tierra Sagrada (Sacred Ground), which chronicles Santería ceremonies in west-central Cuba, was one of several film offerings at this year’s festival.
A less happy theme involved an absence, that of cornetist and composer Ron Miles, who had died of a rare blood cancer three weeks earlier at age 58. Miles was to have led his quintet at the Bijou Theatre on Friday night; instead his band of Jason Moran, Bill Frisell, Thomas Morgan, and Brian Blade played a tribute concert of Miles compositions. One of these, titled “March,” was written as his death approached. Moran told the audience Miles’ family had sent it to the band—“his very last notes,” Moran observed. He appeared to be wiping away tears as the concert ended, and the band members hugged one another tightly before exiting the stage, Blade shaking a fist and leading the audience in an upbeat and celebratory chant of “Ron! Ron! Ron!” as they did so.
That the music at Big Ears has always been the kind of high-quality stuff that Duke Ellington called “beyond category” is largely thanks to Knoxville native Ashley Capps, who worked his way from hosting a cutting-edge public radio show to running an ahead-of-its-time (and long since defunct) local music club called Ella Guru’s to founding AC Entertainment, the company that for many years produced the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tennessee. Last year Capps divested himself of AC Entertainment, retaining control of Big Ears and turning it into its own separate nonprofit company, one geared toward the adventurous musical offerings he had favored since his DJ days. My old friend and former colleague Jack Neely, who has become a leading authority on Knoxville’s local history, suggested to me that Capps had hung onto Big Ears, which he started in 2009, as a labor of love.
The festival is not contained within a gated site as at Newport or New Orleans, but spread through a variety of downtown venues à la Montreal or New York’s Winter Jazzfest. Its two most prominent venues, the Tennessee Theatre and the Bijou Theatre, are located a couple of blocks down Gay Street from each other, but the other venues are also mostly within an easy 10-minute walk or so. As in Newport, hotel rates in Knoxville—a down-home, funky city of fewer than 200,000 full-time residents (and an enrollment of just over 30,000 at the University of Tennessee)—rise precipitously on festival dates. If it’s any consolation, you might (as I did) pass Bill Frisell returning from an afternoon concert as you head out to meet friends for drinks or dinner.
It seems deliberate that “Music” is not included in Big Ears’ name. The festival isn’t limited to concerts. Aside from film screenings, there were morning interviews with musicians and readings by prominent authors. I caught three of the former Friday morning, having spent most of Thursday, the opening day of the festival, getting to Knoxville from Boston. Ann Powers’ interview of Jason Moran and Joe Henry, who had performed together the night before, was particularly strong. Nate Chinen interviewed Julian Lage and Kris Davis in the same room soon afterward; I stayed for about half of it before strolling to another venue to catch some of Marcus J. Moore interviewing Ambrose Akinmusire.
On Saturday, Knoxville native Nikki Giovanni interspersed readings of a handful of touching new poems with a talk full of commonsensical, sometimes profound observations and anecdotes, many of them hilarious. On Sunday, newly named MacArthur genius Hanif Abdurraqib gave brilliant readings of two excerpts from his 2021 National Book Award nonfiction finalist A Little Devil in America, separated by a generous stretch of answering audience questions.