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Rethinking the Festival Format

Anthony Dean-Harris
anthony.deanharris[at]nextbop[dot]com / @retronius

New York had another music festival fairly recently (what, do you people have these things like every weekend or something?). The College Music Journal (CMJ) Festival ran rampant throughout New York a couple of weeks ago. I tried not to pay any attention to it, despite my Twitter timeline having much to say on the matter. Yet, what finally called my attention to the festival was a post out there (I can’t quite find the original piece, unfortunately) by Hank Shteamer stating that while some jazz acts made a foray into this widespread music industry event, they weren't quite successful in those surroundings. This post was the catalyst for a discussion that hit a little pocket of the jazz internet including Shteamer, Matt Michell, and Darcy James Argue.

I, a few weeks after all that, got the chance to attend Austin, Texas' much smaller but quite enjoyable Fun Fun Fun Fest. The format had absoluely nothing to do with jazz (and my being there was so out of the blue I could only conclude that my weekend passes were a blessing from God) but I couldn't help but think the same thing as Shteamer thought about the CMJ. There isn't a place for it, but what if there was? What if the next phase of all this involves adding jazz acts like Marco Benevento or Skerik? The idea may not be if jazz acts are a good fit but more if this is a fight worth having.

This kind of thinking is actually already in practice but it's so under the radar that it may not be acting as much as an inspiration or testimony as it should be. Hearing about Kenneth Whalum III (a fellow Morehouse brother of the c/o 2008, actually) backing Maxwell or Tia Fuller backing Beyoncé (both of whom play the saxophone in an R&B style appropriate for their setting but both are also getting steadily established for their solo jazz works) really seems like a bigger deal than it should be. Nels Cline joining Wilco and still creating fascinating jazz works (I just got Dirty Baby and it's pretty good, the song titles are hilarious) should be as much of an inspiration to younger jazz acts as it is to the folks who keep putting him on the cover of JazzTimes (they're on to something, I tell ya'). These are the instances in which jazz is encroaching on the general public and slowly demystifying it, but it doesn't seem to jostle one another to action. These are paths being paved.

So with this in mind, we next have to figure out how to pose the argument for this to folks outside our jazz echo chamber. How exactly do you put a group like ERIMAJ in the middle of something like Bonnaroo and have folks show up, say that sounds pretty cool, stop by the merch tent (We're all still waiting for that album to drop, Jamire), and have a music blog or publication likeGorilla vs. Bear show some interest in the strong stage presence and grooving sounds? Well, it helps to draw some connecting lines. needs to realize "If you like Explosions in the Sky, you might like Portico Quartet." We need more folks to see in Dirty Projectors what PJ sees. We need folks who can see different sides of different genres and have some hands in the pies like how my own station, KRTU, has J.D. Swerzenski (who had to remind me he made this same point on Nextbop before). Whether it's figuring out how one of us can bumrush whoever does the curating for next year's All tomorrow's Party or put on a festival ourself, we have to figure out a way to frame the argument that booking like this makes sense and pose it to whoever we need to pose it to in order to make things happen.

The debate on the state and the future of jazz continues to rage on but the debate has shown true progress. The artists have truly found new ways to innovate the genre, as artists always find a way to do. The publicists and bookers have found ways to sell these works with varying success. The writers have found different ways to categorize, review, examine, and document these changes. Sometimes it may feel like we're spinning around in circles of our own talk or that the genre is going down the financial drain with the rest of the music industry, but we all still create with our own gifts and the talk we're all having is moving steadily from "should they still make it?" to "what do we call it?" And even still from "what do we call it?" to "how do we share it?" What's even better is that it's not only "how do we share it with the fanbase?" but it's also "how do we share it with everyone?" Ultimately, the question is "how do we sell it?" Everybody here still has to make a living and that's certainly not a bad question to ask. Still, we're at the point of the discourse where we're asking these questions. That sounds like pretty good progress to me.

I've got hope. I've got hope that I could one day go to Coachella and see The Flaming Lips and Darcy James Argue. I've got hope that I could put on the Nextbop festival with Grand Pianoramax and Daedelus. I've got hope that artists will continue to be artists and music fans will continue to be music fans. It's a pretty good feeling, as long as we try to live up to its promise.

Anthony Dean-Harris is a contributing writer for African-American Reflections and hosts the modern jazz radio show, The Line-Up, Fridays at 9pm CST on 91.7 FM KRTU San Antonio. More of his writing can be found at his blog, In Retrospect and you can also follow him on Twitter.