West Coast Jazz
by Willard Jenkins, Artistic Director
One of the more pleasurable demands on my position as artistic director of an evolving jazz festival is to observe the work of other successful festivals. Much of that observation relates to the artistry on those various stages, a kind of scouting mission not unlike the way sports teams regularly scout their peers. We live in a world blessed with great jazz and jazz-informed (i.e. crossover artists) artistry and while it would be easy to simply sit back and listen to recordings, I need to also gauge such aspects as audience response (including sheer number of patrons in the seats), artist comportment towards that audience, and the way artists fit within an overall festival lineup and format in terms of artistic compatibility. And ultimately those observations and impressions are contrasted with a given artist’s suitability for our community. Every festival attended adds to my personal data bank in determining what might work for DC Jazz Festival. And I say “might” because when all is said and done, artistic directing a jazz festival is not an exact science and remains a bit of a crapshoot with myriad variables determining success.
Armed with that sensibility, this past summer my trips included two jazz festivals which have pretty much become automatic trips – the two granddaddies of all jazz festivals: Newport Jazz Festival (first weekend in August) and Monterey Jazz Festival (mid-September). Both are 3-day weekend events that share the commonality of being presented in prescribed, controlled environments. Quite unlike our DCJF, which prides ourselves in being a citywide event, Newport (celebrating its 64th year – though that string was interrupted by a couple of dark years when the festival shifted to New York City due to a well-noted disturbance one year which compelled the Newport, RI gentry to rescind their permit), and Monterey (celebrating its 60th anniversary as the oldest continuing jazz festival in the world) are presented at respectively, Fort Adams State Park and the Monterey County Fairgrounds. In both instances patrons arrive at given entry points, go through security check points (including bag check and metal detection at Newport, simple bag check at Monterey) present their tickets and have the run of the multi-staged grounds.
At Newport the scene includes three stages (morphing from one mainstage about 10 years ago): the mainstage, which abuts historic Fort Adams and outwardly faces the idyllic shores of Narragansett Bay and its historic yachting and boating scene; plus a smaller stage in the Fort Adams courtyard, and a third stage overlooking the harbor. The two smaller stages offer general admission folding chair seating, while the mainstage requires patrons to bring their own folding chairs (of a prescribed dimension) or loll on the grass. Both offer a variety of food, crafts, and commodities vendors.
Monterey offers a more extensive series of simultaneous stages and a tiered ticketing system. The mainstage at MJF is called the Jimmy Lyons Stage, named after the jazz deejay that was the festival’s principle founder. That venue, also known as the Arena, is where one might find equestrian events during county fair days; during the festival seating in the Arena is reserved for a capacity of 6,000. There are four additional MJF venues on the grounds, including an open-air Garden Stage, and the enclosed Dizzy’s Den, The Nightclub, and the Coffee House Gallery for more intimate experiences. One notable difference between the Newport and Monterey controlled environments is MJF’s tiered ticketing system. The Arena is where all the bigger attractions play, though in some cases they play additional sets on one of the smaller stages during the festival (usually at Dizzy’s). One can purchase Arena tickets, with access to all of the stages, or a Grounds pass with access to all but the Arena stage. They also offer a venue where Grounds pass patrons (or those seeking shelter from the cool evening breezes of Monterey Bay) can experience simulcasts of Arena stage acts.
Besides the amazing artistry I experienced at both events this summer, the layout of each event is a big part of the experience; proving particularly instructive given our festival’s ongoing venue discussions and our desire to permanently lock in our format. I highly recommend each of you striving to experience other festivals, for pure artistic enjoyment and to stimulate new ideas as we continue to evolve as a relatively young jazz festival. And next time you see them, ask Conrad Kenley and Sunny Sumter to tell you about their splendid experiences at the 2017 MJF!