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Has the Jazz Fest lost its mojo?
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An awful lot can change in 25 years.

Children become adults, fashions long thought passé come mysteriously back into vogue, and some rare comic books become as valuable as large houses.

In the world of music festivals, it’s much the same. Artists whom most had consigned to the dustbin of history often roar back to reclaim many of their old fans; legendary gatherings (i.e., Woodstock) are brushed off and reborn as crass, commercially-driven DoppelgÄngers of their former namesakes; and sometimes, can’t-miss happenings become brittle and cautious with age.

It’s no secret that there’s been much ado made by some in the local press about the Savannah Jazz Festival. In fact, most of the none-too-subtle innuendo that’s been dropped by the daily paper would have readers believe that many powerful people have already pegged the Jazz Fest as having grown into just such a fragile and irrelevant state.

Reading between the lines, it appears that what’s being said publicly (albeit hesitantly) merely reflects grumblings that have been made privately for some time among many in the local music and arts scenes, as well as city government. Namely, that there’s a very real sense among some longtime observers that the Jazz Fest has lost its way.

What could that mean exactly?

Well, it’s hard to say. And not only because it’s by nature a vague sentiment. Some will tell you that recent headlining artists have paled in name recognition compared with those of years past. Others counter that as time goes by and jazz becomes a more rarefied art form, the bigger names are simply priced out of reach for a festival whose stated mission includes being free to the public.

Still others have begun to compare the time-honored Jazz Fest with the newer and certainly more glamorous Savannah Music Festival, another annual event which often draws even bigger names in the jazz world, but which also benefits from a far more elaborate marketing campaign.

Truth is, this complex issue is being manipulated by a number of parties with vested interests, and plenty of armchair pundits. In this day and age where public funding for the arts finds itself under increased scrutiny from all sides, ensconced government-subsidized traditions like our beloved Jazz Fest have become easy targets for those who would seek to rail against perceived largesse. They have also become easy targets for those with their own agendas and/or axes to grind.

To believe otherwise would be to blind oneself to the harsh realities of the nexus between politics and culture.

However, admitting that such machinations are unfortunately commonplace —and likely at work to some degree here— should not preclude one from taking a closer look at the current state of the Savannah Jazz Fest. That’s because, a quarter of a century into its existence, this wonderful annual event may be nearing a major turning point in its history. How it weathers such a change, and the direction it ultimately takes should be of great interest to this community.

The Jazz Fest is financed primarily by the City of Savannah’s Cultural Affairs Commission, and supplemented through private donations and sponsorships. This weekend, thanks to those two revenue streams, locals and tourists alike will be treated to three days’ worth of live musical entertainment by nationally, regionally and locally-known artists.

Eileen Baker, Director of the City of Savannah’s Department of Cultural Affairs, says that over the years, her department has been mostly pleased with the job the Coastal Jazz Association has done marketing the event to a broad spectrum of the community. She says the Commission monitors the progress of projects they fund, and is thrilled this event has long been viewed as one particularly focused on finding ways to involve young people “both as performers, as well as audience members.”

If there’s any one aspect which causes concern, Baker says it would be the CJA’s longstanding reliance on public funds for the vast majority of their operating costs. “This festival has been going on for 25 years,” she says. “Our hope is that the organizers will find new ways to bring in additional funding.”

Skip Jennings has been the Jazz Fest’s onstage MC for almost two decades, and recently rejoined the CJA’s board of directors after many years. A tireless music enthusiast and supporter of such events, he also volunteers with both The Savannah Music Festival, and the annual Blues & BBQ Fest.

He says that a recent infusion of new blood in the CJA’s leadership already bodes well for the future of this event.

“Andy Blalock is our new president,” explains Jennings, “and he’s increased private sponsorship by $10,000 this year, in big and small donations. We’ve needed this for years.”

Jennings says it’s inherently unfair for detractors of the Jazz Fest to compare its talent roster with that of the Savannah Music Fest, which often books superstar acts, but usually charges between $10 and $35 for tickets to those shows.

“One of the things Jazz Fest prides itself on is that it’s completely free,” he muses. “As I’ve often noted from the stage, we draw folks from Hitch Village to The Landings. However, many artists at this year’s festival are still top-notch names.”

Jennings also acknowledges a perception of complacency within the CJA. “I think we’ve not done a good enough job in the past at demonstrating our successes to the Cultural Affairs Commission,” he concedes.

It seems Baker would tend to agree, although it should be noted that she is quite optimistic and positive in this regard.

“I think the organization needs to re-examine itself and its mission, so the public has a clearer understanding of what they’re all about, and can join more in the celebration.”

Jennings agrees the festival could be “more than it is,” and that he feels the board is committed to seeing this happen.

“Under the leadership of our current president, there are a number of business-style reforms being enacted that hopefully will allow this to become an even greater celebration of jazz heritage than it’s been over the past few years. I also see significant room for cooperation and joint ventures among all local music festivals for everyone’s betterment,” he says.

“In the end, it really is all about the music. It’s not a turf battle, no matter who might want to make it seem that way.” ƒç


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