Jazz Music Takes the Backseat to Popular Music yet again

Imagine you went out to a fancy restaurant and found your favorite romantic dinner place now had a lounge, VLTs and loud dance music. When you asked the manager why, she responded by telling you that they were “trying to attract a younger crowd” making you and your money feel irrelevant.

What if you made your food choices on strictly moral grounds and your night out was a vegan restaurant instead? Then you find hamburgers and chicken fingers on the menu. You are offended by the inclusion of something that is the exact OPPOSITE of what they claim to be selling. When you inquire as to why, the owner tells you that they need to sell meat because the vegan fair doesn’t make any money. Then out from the kitchen comes the chef or manager, a guy wearing a blood stain smock and a meat cleaver in hand, and you realize his other job must be a butcher. Talk about your conflict of interests! What if your questions of why this was happening  were met with being called some kind of ‘purist’. Using the term to say you were closed minded, out of touch or autocratic…basically an insult.
Analogies like this could go on and on, of some business adding in a product or service that was the contrary of what they claimed to be, maybe to the point of the ‘other things’ surpassing what they are supposed to be strong in and then ignoring people who questioned the situation. The only problem is that this type of scenario doesn’t exist in the professional world. Any business that said they sold or provided one thing but was really selling something else (with or without baseless claims or thinly veiled insults) would be out of business faster than you can say chapter 11.
So this is a situation we have here in Winnipeg. We have a jazz festival that has clearly and consistently focused their attention on music that is not jazz. Whether it is having more pop acts than jazz acts, promoting the non jazz more than the actual jazz or dismissing the concerns of music fans as the rantings of ‘purists’, this is the way they do business.
But wait, they aren’t a business they are a publicly funded and subsidized arts group with no competition locally. So this seems to allow them to take our fanciful analogies, that would never fly in the real world, and make it their business model.
For the sake of clarity we can divide Jazz festivals into 2 basic categories.
1. Humongous festivals that take over a large city for about a week, that have many kinds of jazz and that feel the need to have other kinds of music so as to not alienate the balance of the population with too much jazz like the Montreal Jazz Festival. If you have ever been to a jazz festival of this magnitude you know that with so much jazz, from big name concerts to unknown trios playing in a suburban mall food court, walking into a place with a bit of Reggae is a welcome respite even for a 24/7 jazz loving  nut like me.
2. Small festivals that focus on jazz, related musics and are usually on a weekend (Friday night Saturday day and night and Sunday day and night) like the Oakville Jazz Festival “A highly successful event, attracting thousands of residents and tourists..the Oakville Jazz Festival still presents a line-up primarily focused on the jazz genre. You may get a little world music and some folk content, but generally even those acts appear to have been selected based on their improvisational skills.” Largely considered one of the premier jazz events in the southern Ontario area
The Winnipeg version is neither. It might have enough jazz for a weekend festival, it doesn’t take over anything, not even downtown, no one feels overwhelmed or put out by the jazz, it has very few types of jazz, it has more popular music than jazz and yet it is over a week in length!
Why wouldn’t they use a business model that works?
First a break down of the genres at this year’s fest. Now this is not a judgement on good verses bad music as I have played and listened to almost every style there is. I really do not care if it is the best indie emo band in the world it is not jazz. The style categories are based on what the artists submitted in their bios (in a few cases their bios were so oblique or their list of  ‘influences’ so pointless that I needed to listen to the bands to get a clear picture and make my own call). Some of the categories do belong in a jazz festival, some artists from some categories should have a place and we could get nerdy all day about what act belongs in which category but nonetheless here it is.
  1. Jazz 25 acts
  2. Rock/Pop 17 acts
  3. Blues 7 acts
  4. Country/Roots 7 acts
  5. Rap/Hip Hop/ DJ 7 acts
  6. 4 Latin acts
  7. 4 Funk/Soul/R&B Acts
  8. 5 acts that I’ll call ‘Other’

Now you could say there are more jazz acts than any other single type of music listed here but that would be the ONLY way in which jazz has a role.  There are 76 acts in total of which just under 1/3 are Jazz. Even if you include the categories of music (Blues and Latin) that should have a place in a jazz festival we don’t even have half of the events being jazz fest appropriate.  If you add up just the Latin, Blues and ‘Other’ categories you still have more rock bands than those 3 together. Considering how much of the non jazz gets multiple placements the ratio gets more pathetic. On top of that there are some nights that have little or no jazz on tap. Imagine going out on a Saturday night of any jazz festival and finding no jazz?

The most telling way of genre dividing.

  1. 35 Pop
  2. 25 Jazz
  3. 7 blues
  4. 5 other
  5. 4 Latin

The popular music to jazz split is 35 acts of a popular style to 25 Jazz. This is a very fair comparison as there are different kinds of jazz (swing big band smooth dixie etc.) like there are different kinds of popular music (rock indie country etc.) In almost every conceivable way jazz music is the ‘also ran’ at the festival. It is the one time in the year where the art form of jazz can be celebrated and exposed to a wider audience and it is pushed aside in favour of music that has constant year round exposure via radio stations, local bars, and TV channels.

This isn’t a jazz festival it is a Pop festival with some jazz.

Personally I was surprised at the amount of rock/pop acts mostly because of the amount of posters, ads, Twitter feeds and FaceBook invites rammed down my throat for the Rap Hip Hop DJ stuff but I guess that is what happens when a fan of that sort of music is put in charge of that sort of thing they focus on the music THEY like rather than promoting the music that is the festival’s name sake.

We have only 2 big name acts (Wynton Marsalis and Gary Burton) only one ‘young lion’ Robert Glasper (and I suspect he got noticed because of his side involvement with hip hop) For a grand total of 3 (4 if you include the Dirty Dozen Brass Band as a name). If the stars were right you could have one or two on each night of a VERY good weekend long jazz festival.

There is also a serious lack of imagination shown in the jazz bookings. How many times have novelty act The Pink Martini’s been here? They did the same thing with faux flamenco act Jesse Cook, AC artist Molly Johnson and the jazz lite Holly Cole. As well it looks like they are going the same route with Wynton Marsalis and the JATLC. This is their 2nd appearance in 3 years and the tickets sales are slow. They keep going to the well till the well is dry.Their vision of jazz is narrow. They seem to look to the popular music to give the festival diversity rather than seek diversity in the jazz acts. There have been exceptions (The Bad Plus or EST) but those are the exception not the rule.

Now before I get called a jazz purist I’d like to say I think of myself (and others who get insulted thus) as music ‘knowists’. Those who know the difference between jazz and popular music. Knowing what is different is not the same as disliking what is different.

Myself? Yes I am a jazz musician, but getting here I have played almost every kind of music there is and loved almost every moment getting here. I play and teach 4 instruments, I have recorded hip hop artists as well as other styles, I still have a soft spot for traditional country music and progressive rock and up until my accident I was the drummer in a blues band, a classic rock band and bassist in a folk/roots based church band.

So whether I am teaching a student a Metallica song for bass or Clint Black for guitar, double pedal chops on drums, classical music on piano, modes for anyone, recording folk songs or karaoke, making arrangements of John Denver songs for my 7 string guitar, jazz arrangements of The Eagles or The Carpenters or playing a Country music wedding…I am as far away from being a jazz (or any kind of ) purist as one can get.

If I am a purist then that leaves no room for those who think jazz stopped in 1963.

The case against having a lot of jazz at a jazz festival

Over the years I have heard the reasons aka excuses for having a jazz festival with comparatively little jazz.

1. The Jazz doesn’t make enough money and the non jazz supports it.

When Jazz Winnipeg Staff and their apologists tell us the “the jazz doesn’t make enough money so we have to have the other stuff to makes ends meet” they are really avoiding the truth.

That
a) they aren’t good at running a jazz festival
b) they spend more than they take in and need to cut back
c) the festival is too big
d) all of the above.
It also begs the questions…if the pop music is the real money maker (as we are told ad nauseum) then why is so much effort put into promoting the pop styles and so little put into promoting the actual jazz? If a rock band or hip hop act is such a draw it shouldn’t need so much work, so many posters, so many facebook invites, effort and resources that could go into promoting the supposedly under attended jazz. Why also is so much non jazz (16 events) available for free ( yes I know they count on the beer tent but are they selling beer, rock, rap or jazz?) or a huge discount via wrist bands (25 events)? I am unaware of any business model that makes giving something away for free or cheap a money maker. If the jazz needs a big non jazz act to support it then that is a good reason for having Robert Plant but a thinly veiled excuse for having 41 pop based events for little or no money. So I call BS on this theory I think jazz is viable and needs no help to make a festival.  I suspect the revenue is needed for something else. I am pretty sure we could convert the cost of all that popular music into a few more jazz acts.

It takes the same amount of work to book a pop act as a jazz act though I must imagine the bigger named pop acts cost more, it must be just as hard to advertise a jazz act as a pop act. So why not just book, then promote that jazz act for a jazz festival?

2. The jazz festival isn’t just about jazz anymore
Well not according to their mission statement “Jazz Winnipeg is a non-profit organization promoting the art of jazz through concert presentations and community outreach. As producers of the annual jazz festival, as well as concerts and workshops throughout the year, Jazz Winnipeg is a vibrant and essential organization, dedicated to the enrichment of Winnipeg’s cultural community.”
Nothing in there about having to sell beer or promoting pop music

When we say the festival isn’t just jazz anymore it isn’t like saying Canadian Tire isn’t just tires anymore. Jazz Winnipeg is a government sponsored non-profit arts group with a stated mission of promoting jazz music and they are so far from that mission right now. It is paid for by our tax dollars, just look at the sponsor list. While the 7 government agencies, and our tax dollars, are tucked in at the bottom please remember that the corporate sponsors get a tax write off because they are donating to a non-profit group and therefore that is tax revenue denied us. So our taxes and our ticket purchases are the revenue stream.

This is OUR festival!

They aren’t Canadian Tire selling scented candles because they feel they can make more profit, they are a publicly funded arts group selling pop music because they feel like it or they just don’t believe in the viability of jazz.

No, sadly, Jazz Winnipeg is  this way because they choose to be and because we let them.

And what’s with this ‘anymore’ stuff the festival has been this way for over a decade (my time living here) and the decade before according to lifetime Winnipeg-ers.

Business/Marketing 101…you don’t venture into other areas unless you are strong in your core. You can bet Canadian Tire got strong in automotive and hardware before they got in to scented candles or, to get back to the food analogies I started this with…Subway got strong at lunch before they got into breakfast.

Jazz Winnipeg needs to get strong in jazz…period!

3. The non jazz helps expose jazz to a wider audience.

Really? Show us the stats! If you love or even like jazz how did that happen? Where you drinking crantini’s at a dance club, saw a poster for Sonny Rollins and the rest is history?

No, more likely it was an organic transition of you looking for more in your music choices and something about jazz spoke to you. That is the way of all art. You heard some you liked, maybe after having your preconceptions shattered about what jazz is and is not, maybe after some oblique encounters. You got into it slowly one recording at a time and so on. You weren’t at a rave and decided to check out some jazz because the DJ was sponsored by a jazz festival.

The popular music isn’t bringing anyone to jazz anymore than the jazz is bringing  people to popular music. Just like pop stars venturing into jazz lite doesn’t bring their fans to jazz. When Rod Stewart puts out another American songbook CD Rod Stewart fans buy it. The studies indicate they do not buy buy much jazz outside of that.

A student recently told me a story of their experience of trying to get exposed to jazz by going to our Jazz festival.

“It started off with something I think was jazz but by the end of the night it was just some guy dancing around a laptop”

Potential jazz fan ruined. I wonder how many times this has happened?

4. Other festivals have non jazz

Yes, Montreal has Robert Plant so do we Montreal also has Peter Frampton, Peter is coming to Winnipeg but not as part of the jazz fest. Brian Wilson (ex of The Beach Boys) is doing Gershwin (Pop star doing American Songbook) during Fest Week but is not a part of the Jazz Festival. There is no rhyme or reason except whimsy or tour date scheduling.

I haven’t the time to go through Montreal’s 16 pages of events to figure the ratio of jazz to pop. All I know is they have a lot of international jazz, Canadian jazz and a huge pool of top notch locals.

Many of us have no problem with other kinds of music at a jazz festival. Jazz festivals have always been a place for other marginalized musics. Over all it is about proportion  one DJ, a Rapper and a critically acclaimed indie band would be fine it’s devoting the majority of your events program, sponsorship money and other resources to the popular music that is the problem.

5. We don’t hear anyone complaining

Well I do, jazz fans and jazz musicians gripe constantly about this festival. The jazz fans are dismissed as ‘purists’ and the musicians know if they speak publicly they can kiss any future jazz fest gigs goodbye because it has happened to others. When I play out either publicly or private functions I am inundated by people wanting to know ‘why we don’t play the festival’, that ‘we should apply’, that ‘there’s not much jazz at the festival you guys should be in it’ etc. Because I feel so passionately I am left either merely nodding my head, shrugging my shoulders or launching into a tirade about the festival. Either way many Winnipeg jazz fans think that there is so little jazz because no one applies or some other system gets in the way rather than the truth of it; that the festival itself prevents the process. There are those who know more about the inner workings and they feel they have no voice in the debate.

Who is left to complain after that? Well we have a classic case of tyranny of the majority. No one who has a gig at the festival now or wants one in the future  (jazz acts or otherwise) is going to complain. Pop music fans aren’t going to complain. People who don’t go or don’t care aren’t going to complain.

Bottom line; I, one person, hear uncountable complaints about how the festival is run and the line up from musicians and students to dentists and lawyers.

The case for having a jazz focused jazz festival
(and what other festivals do)

Well the number one reason is because that is what the festival is supposed to do. That’s what is stated in their mission. It is a highly diverse style of music but it is not as popular and therefore quite marginalized, that is why we have jazz fests to promote and celebrate a music that is not widely accepted.
Folkfest has mostly folk, Countryfest has mostly country, Rock on the Range is all rock. Jazz Winnipeg should have mostly jazz.

Jazz is an upscale music. People who like jazz buy the music (not as likely to steal it off the net) and are more likely to go to concerts.

Jazz artists are long term. Rock bands break up, pop bands are one hit wonders, DJ’s don’t even play an instrument and, as Chris Rock says about Rap and Hip Hop stars…”here today gone later today”. The beautiful thing about jazz is that if you can’t book them this year they will be around next year, can’t say that for the pop acts.

Jazz acts are less expensive. They don’t bring truck loads of gear and staff, they get off a plane with their axe in hand, carry their own luggage, show up and play. No need to separate the M & M’s

Despite the way jazz musicians are portrayed they are a dedicated, hard working and disciplined bunch (it’s how you get good at a difficult musical style) and so they show up for gigs. As of this writing Jazz Winnipeg has had 2 pop acts cancel, the last time a jazz act cancelled here was when EST’s leader died)

We are the 8th largest city in Canada but unlike most of the 7 in front of us we have little population outside our city to draw upon. This is a case for a smaller festival. There is no need for it to be over a week long and/or have many competing events per night (particularly when most of it isn’t jazz).

Cities close to us in demographics do things quite differently. Edmonton Jazz Festival is a week long, is all jazz and related music in a city of a mere 300,000 more people. The Calgary festival has died swirled in rumours of fiscal incompetence and/or getting too big for a city that size.

Canada’s 17th largest city, Saskatoon, has a festival with 39 acts with 20 of the acts being jazz (yes the majority and only 5 less than us) with most of the non jazz being world beat, latin or blues fair. Looks like the jazz is strong and better there. Ten of the acts are of a big name variety and what’s more all the names you see on their schedule we could have had here but Winnipeg organizers chose not to.  So a Prairie city 1/3 our size can put on a 9 day jazz festival that makes jazz the focus has big names, touring Canadian and local jazz and seems to be able to make ends meet without relying on beer tents and raves.

A business model that works

I could do this all day show huge festivals that have so much jazz they need other kinds of music to balance it out or smaller festivals that focus on jazz.

What Can Be Done?

I will state again that this is not about the value of those other kinds of music but they have their own festivals, bars, legions, clubs, radio and cable TV stations etc. It is also not about the jazz we have this year I want all the jazz we have plus way more. Ideally I would want every competent, professional and full time jazz musician in town to have a gig. I would want as many touring name acts as possible.

Hey I am just spit balling here as nothing is gonna change anytime soon. Except for a brief 2 year period, just after a major regime change, we have had mostly pop music based bad jazz festivals (though this one does really seem to take the cake) so nothing but a complete over haul would accomplish anything as the problems seem to be systemic. But I have come this far and so I am not without some observations.

  1. Focus on jazz, get strong on jazz, learn to market jazz, learn to sell jazz to jazz fans, make our concerns about Winnipeg Jazz fans 1st, worry about the non jazz fans 2nd.
  2. Make it smaller either by condensing the present level of jazz onto a weekend or keeping it long (to allow for more flexibility when booking touring acts) but have fewer acts competing for attendance on any given night.
  3. Don’t put jazz up against pop music, jazz will lose every time, that is why it is called popular music.
  4. Jazz’s fiscal performance should never compared to pop music it is unfair and a self fulfilling prophecy.
  5. More local jazz and/or more reliance on local jazz.
  6. Put someone in place who will not fall prey to the slippery slope effect, one DJ turns into a week of it, one rock band turns into a festival dominated by it.
  7. Resist the need to get bigger for its own sake
  8. Listen to jazz fans, give them a voice.
  9. Listen to jazz musicians and not punish them for merely having concerns. Help them feel this is their festival.
  10. Stop this obsession to attract only the young market, they are important but they aren’t everything.
  11. Remove people with a negative, defeatist attitude about jazz in this town and who see jazz as some sort of problem to be overcome. There is a core of jazz fans and many business that think jazz is a viable way to entertain their clientele.
  12. Keep an ear to the ground as to what is going on jazz wise in this city. Learn the difference between an act thrown together and and working ensemble. Learn who hasn’t had a gig all year and who plays all the time. Learn who has been playing jazz for 2 years and who has done it for decades. Learn the difference between a good sounding CD and a good sounding band. Go out and listen to local jazz and see who acts professionally on stage and who doesn’t. Then find an appropriate place for all.
  13. Keep an ear to the ground about the young lions on the international scene.
  14. Make it easier for the locals to get a gig at the fest. I have heard from more than a few local veterans about the ignored inquiries and multiple hoops they have to jump through in an attempt to get one of the few jazz spots. If you wonder why many of the local jazz stalwarts don’t have a jazz fest gig many times they can’t be bothered with the process or, in some cases, if they have been openly critical of the fest they get blackballed. Personally I don’t bother anymore and, like this year, I usually have a gig (usually better paying) during the fest without having to seek their disapproval.
  15. Encourage the veterans to apply and seek them out if they don’t apply, give them a voice.
  16. Make the free weekend all local jazz and related music. Seems silly to charge money for local jazz acts we can see year round for free.  It is also an obvious way (at least to me) to be “promoting the art of jazz”
  17. There are a handful of venues that have and support jazz year round that are never Jazz Winnipeg venues, this needs to change.
  18. If we are having locals in the clubs (for free or a fee) then there is no need to pay for back line (companies that put music gear in place for musicians to use) locals can (and usually do) bring their own gear like they do the rest of the year. A strictly money saving measure.
  19. Take advantage of the Musicians Unions Performance trust fund it works perfect for free outdoor events
  20. A serious look at who, why and how many people get into ticketed events for free.
  21. If we want (or even need) a beer and wine tent we can still have one just as easily with Jazz, Latin and Blues musics. They may or may not sell as much booze but so what, this is a jazz festival not Oktoberfest
  22. Expand and modernize the pillars of marketing for the 21st century. Posters!?? What is this 1920 and the circus is coming to town? Have you ever gone to something you read about on a poster? Posters don’t target a market demographic.  A lot of money can be saved by not printing a gazillion schedules, programs and posters. Time to go green to save some green.
  23. Track what advertising does work
  24. Stop this old fashioned nonsense of keeping all or most of the line up a badly kept secret until some big announcement event all in the name of creating a false sense of excitement. It has been weird to watch them push hard on selling  tickets for a bluegrass show they are having in July (a month after jazz fest ends and two weeks after Folkfest) while keeping the jazz fest line up a secret. Studies indicate that a message needs to be heard 3 times to have any effect, but that a message needs to be delivered 9 times to be heard once. Getting the word out 27 times may be the reason they feel the need to waste money on posters. How about employing low cost guerrilla tactics? Like if every local who gets a gig mentions it on their website, Twitter facebook reverbnation myspace accounts you’ll get way more than that 27 times for the cost of $0.00 and you can still have a full schedule announcement
  25. Get out of the year round events business until the once a year jazz festival is strong on its own. If not, consider a jazz focused subscription series. If you have a quality product like the Asper Jazz series (which is subscription AND usually sold out before all the acts are announced) I and many others would buy season tickets.
  26. Lastly it needs to be examined whether we need any amount of year round full time staff to organize a once a year event. Is this really a full time job or is it more like a school board trustee’s job? Maybe it should be a great paying part time job with intense work here and there, lots of down time in between and more reliance on volunteers.
Finally what I do not advocate is any kind of boycott, quite the opposite. I would encourage jazz fans to buy tickets for and attend as many jazz shows as your time and pocket book will allow. Second I would encourage anyone who would like to see any or all of the changes I have outline here or any other ones that bring us closer to the goal of a proper jazz festival to write, phone or fill out your  those surveys and voice your concerns and desire for change. Call Jazz Winnipeg, call the board of directors, tell your like minded friends, call the sponsors etc. one thing this debate lacks is discussion in the open.

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