What does it take for a jazz festival, or a more eclectic music festival, to survive, and thrive?
For starters, a strong vision (what’s this fest’s focus?), strong funding (civic, corporate, otherwise), a strong promotional effort (get the message out to the right people, by any means necessary) and a strong commitment to the fest’s immediate viability and long-term survival.
The Child of the Sun Jazz Festival in Lakeland once boasted some of that. Remember the days when the late Nat Adderley (below), legendary trumpeter and longtime artist in residence at Florida Southern College, brought all of his top-shelf NYC bandmates, and some of their associates, to play the fest at FSC?
Thankfully, I had several opportunities to play my hometown’s fest, with some bands under my name, as well as my Acme Jazz Garage and Trio Vibe groups, and the FSC faculty jazz group (I wasn’t a faculty member but they invited me anyway).
FSC music prof Larry Burke did a great job organizing the fest, and making it a first class event. It was a feather in the cap for the college, a free admission fest offering folks the chance to see world-class jazz artists as well as good local players. The Child of the Sun Fest was unique for the area, as there was (and still is) nothing else like it in Lakeland or Polk County.
Jazz fans all over the region, and some from around the state, showed up to take in the music, which was played on an elevated stage in a beautiful setting on a lawn in front of the library on the Frank Lloyd Wright-designed campus. Sunny days turned into cool nights, and attendees often brought along their own picnics.
The crowds would have been larger, I think, had the college offered more appreciation and more support for a great event, right in front of FSC’s eyes. Maybe the powers-that-be didn’t get it? The promotional effort was less than robust, to say the least. I can’t tell you how many times Bob Seymour, the jazz director at WUSF (who sometimes attended the fest and talked about it on air) asked me why he hadn’t heard anything yet about any given year’s event — the lineup or even the date.
Sadly, after Nat passed away, FSC’s support for the fest began to dwindle.
If I recall correctly, the fest didn’t happen for a couple of years. But then it was revived in 2011, under the auspices of the Lakeland Rotary Club. The organization did a nice job with the fest at the start, but then began tinkering with the programming, foregoing national artists, taking “jazz” out of the title and making it the Child of the Sun Music Festival and 5K Run.
This year, the fest was scheduled to take place on April 2, and you can still find it listed online.
But earlier this week, organizers announced that the fest is going on hiatus, taking “a pause” for a year because the sponsoring organization wants to put its efforts into a “bigger” fundraising opportunity, a concert at Joker Marchant Stadium with Three Dog Night and America, or what’s left of those bands. Does it need to be said that rock ‘n’ roll nostalgia bands are a dime a dozen, and you can see those types of shows anywhere, anytime? Does it need to be added that, if big money comes in from the oldies concert, there’s not a whole lot of incentive to bring back the smaller event?
Fest organizers have announced that they’re just taking a year off. But anyone who knows anything about festivals (music or otherwise) knows that dropping the ball for a year absolutely destroys the forward momentum of a fest. You can’t do it halfway.
So … maybe it’s not fair to blame the sponsoring group. They have their own goals, and if reaching those goals requires another type of an event, more of a sure-fire money making opportunity, then, you know, more power to them. The Lakeland Rotary Club, and Rotary clubs throughout Lakeland, and elsewhere, typically support plenty of worthwhile, civic-minded causes.
Music festival management isn’t for everyone. Tough job. But if Rotary is serious about putting on a good music festival then, you know, make a real commitment to it.
Bring in some musicians and/or other music folks to advise on the programming, secure some sponsorship dollars from the City of Lakeland and/or major companies or wealthy individuals based in the area, and promote the heck out of the thing. If you build it properly, they will come.
(I have loads of experience attending and covering music festivals around the world, and working in communications, so I’d happily provide input and advice, whether it comes to the programming or the PR/media side).
If not, then … there’s an opening for other organizations or individuals to make it happen. Any takers?