Free Jazz vs Paid Jazz: Does It Work? Lessons from the Elkhart Jazz Festival

Can free and paid jazz compliment each other or do they contradict the purpose of a jazz festival? With non-paying audiences five times larger than the size of the paying audience, what keeps a jazz festival in business? Here’s how it works in Elkhart where the intent has always been to serve the general public AND jazz fans!

Once again, the 2016 Elkhart Jazz Festival sent the crowds home satisfied with its 29th year of performances. From a few thousand in 1988 to over 15,000 this year, the festival offered a strong lineup for the paying customers and some first class talent at the two free stages provided on Main Street. Providing a heavy dose of talent to the general public is a scary proposition for the festival planners but the major reason for using the downtown area for the festival is to bring people downtown…. and it happens!

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The free stages included several of the performers who play in the pay-venues along with several regional groups, using jazz, folk, bluegrass, rock (for the first time), and a Sunday church choir. On both Friday and Saturday night, the thousands of attendees literally packed Main Street. The food vendors located there did very well, too! The opening ceremony for the fest occurred on the Main Street stage on Firday, June 24, using the EJF All Stars and a few of the student workshop musicians. (The EJF Student workshop was held on June 22 and 23…successfully.) The acts that followed included a one hour salute to Wes Montgomery, and then by an hour each of smooth jazz, Latin jazz, and a local quartet. That’s day one.

The following Saturday began with seven high school bands playing on three different venues: Main Street, the newly renovated Lerner Theatre, and the Crystal Ballroom. They were followed by a regional big band, the Jazz Assemblage, the Indiana University South Bend Jazz Ensemble, and Craig Gildner’s 20’s/30’s jazz band…all in the morning and early afternoon. The crowds continued to grow. Saturday evening’s entertainment included vocalist Blair Clark, followed by a Chicago swing band, BMR4, Dave Bennett’s quartet, and the Rad Trad, a funk group from Chicago. By mid-eveing, the crowd was shoulder to shoulder and, yes, we do provide a dance floor in front of the stage!

Sunday started with a fine Ohio trad jazz band, Dave Greer’s Classic Jazz Stompers at 10:00 a.m. and we had a crowd! They were then followed by the Elkhart Community Choir and its church music. The last two acts on the “free stage” included Joan Collasso, a Chicago vocalist with the Larry Hanks trio. Then, Elkhart’s very own Elkhart Truth in Jazz band finished three days of first rate music.

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While Main Street’s jazz stage kept a huge crowd, another stage on Main Street, a few blocks south, provided two hours of big band music (Truth in Jazz) and ended with two hours of rock music. Many of the same bands at the earlier stage appeared on this stage over the three days. Meanwhile, jazz occurred at Well Field Gardens, a city park, north of downtown, as well as the two performances at the Midwest Museum of American Art, featuring Dr. John Hasse, the curator of American Music at the Smithsonian, discussing first, the contributions Indiana made to the development and maintenance of American jazz, followed by an hour presentation about Hoosier, Hoagy Carmichael. (On Sunday he did a great presentation about Jazz and Baseball…yes, theirs is a strong connection!)

While all of the above was going on, the paying customers were at five venues watching and listening to the likes of Dave Bennet’s quartet, Becky Kilgore’s quartet, Blair Clar, the Rad Trad, the Gene Knific Trio, the Ed Laub quartet (with Gene Bertoncini, Ed Laub, and a recovered Bucky Pizzarelli, with Martin, his son, on bass). In addition, Craig Gildner’s 20’s/30’s swing band, Toledo’s Cakewalking Jazz Band, Dave Greer’s Stompers, the Alfonso Ponticelli Gypsy Band, Joan Collaso, BMR4, a three hour Jazzorama with nine different groups, and two major acts: Joshua Redman (Friday night) and Trombone Shorty, Saturday night. And I’m sure I’ve forgotten some of the talent but it’s important to provide some strong talent for the free stages as well as top notch talent at the paid venues.

I trust a review of what was provided helps the reader understand that if a festival wants to bring folks to the downtown for free entertainment, do it with good talent that will hold the crowd. The paid venues offer air conditioning, and a theater atmosphere, along with the “out of town” talent and the “big names.” Remember, too, that ticket sales make up, at the most, only about a third of the dollars for the festival.

The key is always the sponsors, both the big and the small ones. Several one thousand and two thousand dollar contributions add up, along with the bigger sponsors; e.g., our local banks, music companies, and businesses, the Community Foundation, as well as other foundations and groups. Again, they are the key! Once the crowds begin to grow, so does sponsorship. Get the word out to the entire community and they will come! We’ve been doing this for 29years! The downtown has literally been revived…thanks to jazz!

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Van D. Young is an EJF organizer, this story ran with the following sidebar reporting on the success of the 2016 event.


THREE LITTLE WORDS!

I suspect the “three little words” festival folks most enjoy hearing is “We Made Money!” or perhaps “It’s finally over!” Either way, we’ve found that it’s a great feeling to know the folks were pleased and we had another money-maker. That’s so important, isn’t it!

This year’s festival tried a few new events, venues, and musicians. On a second Main Street stage, we had jazz, folk, and some rock! The two stages didn’t conflict with one another but we did notice a lot of younger folks at the new venue, especially Saturday night after 10 pm when they used a rock band. It was preceded by a local big band, the Truth in Jazz Band. As usual, the outdoor crowds were huge and we have several regional bands as well as a number of the bands who were playing for the “paid” crowds.

We’re now into our fifth years of using Big Names on Friday and Saturday. Joshua Redman’s quartet played contemporary jazz on Friday and Saturday was “funk” night with Trombone Shorty….He drew a big crowd!

Otherwise, the five other venues had good crowds as well and included Rica Obsession Latin Band from Chicago/ Those who like swing could have it in the form of early swing…Craig Gildner’s Blue Sky Five or BMR4, a contemporary swing group of young men from Chicago. For some Goodman jazz, we had our super-star, Dave Bennet Quartet, always a pleaser!

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Our workshop instructors, the EJF All Stars, opened the festival by including some of their students for performance and they did well. Butch Miles was at the drums this year and Terry Myers was on reed. The others were with us last year: Randy Rinehart, trumpet; John Allred, trombone; Frank Tate, bass; Howard Alden on guitar; Terry Lower, piano, and Edith Evans-Hyde, vocals. The workshop was a big success with increased enrollment over year one. The Blair Clark Quartet, Becky Kilgore and her quartet, as well as Joan Collaso and her trio, took care of much of the vocalizing this year.

For smooth jazz, Kris Brownlee’s quartet and soprano-saxist Elizabeth Mis’ group, satisfied those who prefer smooth. And gypsy jazz lovers cheered on Alfonso Ponticelli’s Swing Gitan while the trad folks were content with Dave Greer’s Jazz Stompers and the Cakewalkin’ Jazz Band from Toledo, along with some fine young contemporary jazz from the Gene Knific Trio. We also found a young group, billed as the Rad Trad, who pleased all ages with some fun “funky” jazz.

Lots of specials were available: A tribute to Wes Montgomery, Dr. John Hasse’s talks on Indiana jazz, Hoagy Carmichael, and Baseball and Jazz. Yes, they do belong together! We were all super-pleased to have Bucky Pizzarelli back, recovered from his illness, along with Gene Bertoncini, and Ed Laub on guitars with Martin Pizzarelli on bass.

To sum it up in three words: A Fun Weekend!!! – Van D. Young

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