Clearwater Mayor on Jazz Holiday: “You get what you pay for”

As fellow musicians, other friends, and readers know by now, I have a complicated relationship with the Clearwater Jazz Holiday.

I’ve covered the festival for many years, for both daily newspapers in the Tampa Bay area, and also for national music magazines. During the period when jazz advocate (and humanities prof) Frank Spena programmed the fest, and for several years later, the Jazz Holiday was home to the creme de la creme of jazz talent — established artists as well as a long list of rising stars who now figure prominently in various critics and readers polls conducted by DownBeat, JazzTimes, and the Jazz Journalists Association.

Let’s not forget: The festival, launched in 1980, played host to such greats as Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie (left), Herbie Mann, and Dave Brubeck during its first five years. Then came Count Basie (85), Stan Getz (86), Tito Puente and Phil Woods (87), McCoy Tyner (88), and Sonny Rollins (89). Ask anyone who cares about jazz: All of these musicians fall into the category of “major” jazz artists, who have played a significant role in jazz history.

Since then, there have been some great performances by some very good musicians. But only a handful of major, poll-winning jazz artists have played.

By way of newspaper columns and reviews, and blog posts, I’ve consistently pushed the fest to focus on high-quality jazz, of the straight-ahead variety. I’ve begged the fest to ditch the bland, generic (and sometimes pricey) “smooth” jazz acts who apparently are so beloved by the most influential members of the festival’s music committee.

Truth be told, I’ve also urged organizers  to bring in the kind of jazz that artfully incorporates other elements, including funk, rock, jamband, and experimental edges; that kind of music could serve to bring in a more youthful group of music aficionados. My old jam-oriented band, Ghetto Love Sugar, even played the fest in 2002 (kudos to the Jazz Holiday for continuing to include performances by strong local talent). And I’d like to think that my encouragement to bill artists in that vein played at least some role in the decision to book John Scofield (2001) and Medeski Martin and Wood (2007). Two impressive artists in a somewhat similar vein, New Orleans brass man Trombone Shorty (below) and one-time James Brown saxophonist Maceo Parker, are on this year’s bill — good stuff.

I’m rewinding all this history as a reminder: I have nothing but good wishes for the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, and many fond memories of great shows at the fest. I want to see the festival fulfill its mission, and again become a gem on the Tampa Bay area’s arts calendar.

That’s why I’m surprised by those fest organizers, public officials, and even some in the media who take offense at even mild criticism of the lineup; some observers, who may or may not know the difference between Lady Day and Lady Gaga, have derided as “purists” those jazz fans who hope to see the Jazz Holiday upgrade its programming.

Take, for example, Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard. In a recent post post on the Holiday, I praised the inclusion of such artists as omnipresent bassist Christian McBride (below), veteran singer Dianne Reeves, and rising-star pianist Gerald Clayton, while also noting the utter absence of major, legendary jazz artists in headlining positions.

In response, in a comment on the post, Hibbard had this to say, in part: “We all know the sad state the Clearwater Jazz Holiday is in, and year after year many of us jazz fans are disappointed with their Jazz-less lineups. But again its FREE !”

So, then, because it’s free, jazz fans should lower their expectations regarding the quality of the music presented?

And what, exactly, does he mean regarding the fest’s “sad state”? Is it on shaky financial footing (I presume so)? If so, just what is the state of the fest? Why not reveal the details, so that supporters can have a greater opportunity to perhaps spread the word and help get the fest in better shape, financially?

Another commenter on this blog, Carl Harness, wrote something that, I think, gets at the heart of the Jazz Holiday’s issues:

“One of the problems that the CJH group has is that everyone you talk with gives you a different answer to the question, what is your mission? There is no consistency in their message. The Board members seem to have different ideas of what the mission is or should be. Some speak of the event being a “major national jazz festival” others talk about tuning it down to something that appeals more to a local audience. It is obvious from the lineups that we have had the past couple of years we are not competitive on the national front. All you have to do is compare our lineups with that of Jacksonville and/or Seabreeze in Panama City Beach.”

I’ve heard this kind of commentary from other sources, and it makes sense. If Jazz Holiday organizers and the City of Clearwater do want to again see the Jazz Holiday become a major jazz festival, the kind that draws jazz fans from all over the Southeast (and beyond), then why not go all-out in that direction?

As I’ve pointed out in the past, the money isn’t really the obstacle. Such smooth-jazz acts as The Rippingtons and Boney James, with their considerable production requirements, charge at least as much as anyone who fits in the category of legendary jazz artist. Alternatively, if the fest desires to become merely another nice event in the park, with a few jazzy artists, then why not revise the mission statement and change its name to something like Clearwater Music Festival? Not that there’s anything wrong that: There’s no law stating that Tampa or St. Petersburg can’t take over the task of putting on a major jazz festival.

Again, my hope is that the Jazz Holiday will pledge to take its mission seriously, and renew its efforts to present a program of world-class jazz. Other large metropolitan areas can do it, and have done it — and, yes, without charging admission. Why not us?

For the record, schedule permitting I hope to catch this year’s performances by Trombone Shorty, and former “Tonight Show” guitarist Kevin Eubanks (10/13), the Gerald Clayton Trio, and saxophonist Valerie Gillespie (10/14); and Dianne Reeves, and Christian McBride (10/16). I have my own gig on 10/15, but if I were to get to the park I’d make a point of seeing Maceo Parker, master Latin percussionist Sammy Figueroa, guitarist and USF teacher (and friend) LaRue Nickelson (left), and rising-star singer Whitney James (right).

Hibbard’s comments, and my response, are below. What do you think?

———-

Well there you go again Mr. Booth,

People like you never cease to amaze me, Always Complaining !

I guess you get what you pay for, and when last I checked the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, and your VIP ticket, is still FREE !

We all know the sad state the Clearwater Jazz Holiday is in, and year after year many of us jazz fans are disappointed with their Jazz-less lineups.

But again its FREE !

If you don’t like the artists selected, I suggest instead of constantly complaining about the lack of Sonny Rollins, you find other ways to contribute to improve the artists selection process, or better yet, Just Don’t Attend The Event !

FH

Frank Hibbard

August 31, 2011

———-

(my response:)

“There you go again, Mayor Hibbard (if that’s really you).

So you’re saying that because the festival is free — FREE! — then it should lower its standards when it comes to presenting quality jazz? Or that it shouldn’t adhere to its stated mission? Have you read the mission statement?

There are other cities, larger (Chicago) and smaller than Clearwater, that manage to put on free-admission jazz festivals featuring world-class talent. Again, FREE!

In regards to complaining “about the lack of Sonny Rollins”: Most readers are aware that I was just using Sonny as an example as the kind of artist – undeniably a legendary jazz artist – who ought to have a home on a festival that wants to offer world-class jazz.

As far as supporting the festival, I’m probably one of the most loyal longtime boosters of the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, having written multiple cover stories on the fest (positive stories, promoting the event) for both daily newspapers in our area, and being the first person to provide coverage of the fest – again, positive – in major national music magazines.

Yes, I’ve been critical of the lineup in recent years, but you’ll have to believe me when I tell you that it’s tough love. On the fest’s best nights, when good jazz is on the bill and a cool breeze is blowing, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere except at Coachman Park during the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. If I didn’t care about the festival, and about jazz, why would I spend time writing about it?

Your best suggestion for those who disagree with the festival’s programming is to “Don’t Attend the Event!”? Really? Is that the advice you give to folks who disagree with you on City of Clearwater matters? “Just Move Out of Clearwater”? Pardon me for saying so, but that’s a very skewed approach to civic leadership.

Just so you know (since, apparently you don’t): The fest’s music committee for many years has closed itself off to outside influence – except for one year when they asked several knowledgeable jazz people to come in and have a discussion about the lineup. So the only way for us to contribute now is through public forums, like this blog.

As a self-declared jazz fan, what have YOU done to ensure that the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, the only major, large-scale jazz festival in our area, brings in world-class jazz and not merely a mixed bag of sort-of jazzy artists?”

NY Times Critic Ben Ratliff Talks To Readers

Want to ask a question of a New York Times music critic, actually get a response, and perhaps see the exchange published?

Now's the time.
 
Ben Ratliff, who writes about jazz, rock and pop for the Times, and penned
last year's acclaimed The Jazz Ear: Conversations Over Music, a collection
of interviews with jazz greats, this week is making a point of responding
to readers' questions.
 
Below is the announcement of the feature, and an initial q&a.
 
Ratliff offers a quite sound response to a question regarding the relatively small
audience for jazz. To that, I would add:
 
1)The if-a-tree-falls-in-the-woods truth: If the average music listener/consumer
doesn't read or hear about jazz (or, for that matter, blues or world music or
altcountry), then how does he or she know that that music exists? There is often
 -- but not always -- a direct correlation between the music that gets the most
hype, and the Billboard charts. This is related to the below:
 
2)FAR too many music "critics" spend the bulk of their time/energy
chasing celebrity culture, rather than writing actual music. Case in point:
The acres of forests giving their lives this week for oodles of stories on
the allegedly new and improved "American Idol." What's that abomination
of a "reality" show have to do with music that matters?
Nothing.
 
Related to the above is an irony: The folks who continue to be loyal to
newspapers, in print, are generally older readers. Within that group are
those who cite arts and entertainment coverage as a primary reason for
continuing to purchase newspapers. Many of those older readers have
little use for coverage of '"American Idol" and the likes of Miley Cyrus
and the Jonas Brothers, etc. 
 
Here's the irony: The younger audiences (Teens? Tweens?) who are interested
in that kind of stuff have already abandoned print papers for online sources, so
they're not being served when that coverage appears in print. And the readers
still loyal to print newspapers are simply annoyed when papers emphasize
teen/pop celebrity coverage at the expense of arts/music of substance. So -- to 
clarify -- they're catering to an audience that's already gone and in the process
pissing off regular readers. 
 
Smart thinking, huh? 
 
Here's the link to the ask-the-readers feature. And below is the announcement
published in the Times:
 
January 12, 2009 
Talk to the Newsroom: 
Ben Ratliff, Jazz and Pop Critic 
 
Ben Ratliff, music critic, is answering questions from readers Jan. 12-16, 
2009. Questions may be e-mailed to askthetimes@nytimes.com. 
 
Mr. Ratliff has been a jazz and pop critic at the New York Times since 1996. 
 
Born in New York City in 1968, he grew up in London and Rockland County, 
N.Y., and studied Classics at Columbia University. He is the author of 
"Jazz: A Critic¹s Guide to the 100 Most Important Recordings" (2002), 
"Coltrane: The Story of a Sound" (2007) and "The Jazz Ear: Conversations 
Over Music" (2008). 
 
Among hundreds of reviews, reported stories and obituaries in these pages, 
he has written about Duke Ellington, Slick Rick, Shirley Caesar, Dorival 
Caymmi, Miles Davis, Tony Bennett, Johnny Paycheck, Cat Power, Slayer, 
Donald Lambert, the Stooges, Tito Puente, Miley Cyrus, Prince, Gal Costa, Bo 
Diddley, Bebo Valdes, the Texas A&M University Marching Storm, community 
singing in East Lansing, Mich., the praise-rock house bands at the High 
Desert Church in Victorville, Calif., and much else. 
 
These discussions will continue in coming weeks with other Times editors and 
reporters. 
 
Why Isn't Jazz Audience Bigger? 
 
Q. Why isn't there more of an audience for "straight-ahead" jazz? Or put in 
a different way, how come established jazz artists who have been active 
since the '50s or early '60s are given only niche status (or no visibility 
at all) by the media? Do you feel the media plays a role/responsibiltiy 
regarding the public awareness of such artists as Freddie Hubbard, Barry 
Harris, Cedar Walton, for example? Why is it that the general (U.S.) public 
have no awareness or appreciation of this genre? 
-- Paul Loubriel 
 
A. Paul: This is a big question. I'll try to hit some parts of it but I 
probably won't answer it to your satisfaction. 
 
In the last 60 years, people almost completely stopped dancing to jazz, and 
far fewer people grew up with pianos in the house. I think that has a lot to 
do with why jazz is no longer the popular vernacular art it used to be. When 
you dance to music (in all ways -- partner dancing, stepping, headbanging -- 
just reacting to music with your body) or when you play it, then you own it. 
A lot of people born since 1960 don't feel that they own jazz. 
 
Absolutely, the media plays a role in why the average person doesn't know 
who Cedar Walton is. But I think the mainstream media -- obviously we're not 
talking about jazz magazines like Downbeat, which has Benny Golson on the 
cover this month (a good example of the kind of artist you're talking about) 
-- doesn't, by definition, deal with the kind of art that post-bop mainstream 
jazz has become, which is an art of tradition and very slow refinements. 
 
Mainstream publications, generally, want to run music stories about what's 
new or radically different, or about trends. (This could get into a larger 
issue about the shallowness of the general perception of "news.") With 
classical music, they put a lot of stock in premieres or big, notable new 
compositions. In jazz there are few premieres and few big, notable new 
compositions. One has to sniff out what's interesting, however it presents 
itself: it could be a one-night gig attended by 15 people or a sold-out run. 
 
As for the general public, they're not buying albums as much anymore, and as 
much as jazz is a recordings medium at all, it's still an album art. 
 
I believe that jazz needs more jazz clubs (with small cover charges), 
because it's still a social music. The way to know about Cedar Walton in 
2009 is to go see him at the Village Vanguard. 
 
By the way, I see that The Times has mentioned Cedar Walton 247 times, in 
reviews and articles and listings, since 1980. Not too bad.