Dissonant Notes at Jazz Festivals


For decades, the term “New York jazz festival” was defined by George Wein. His Festival Productions began its storied Manhattan run in 1972, and quickly established an important sponsorship model with companies like JVC. Wein sold his company in 2007. Two years later, his flagship New York event was gone. It returned last year with a new sponsor, the health care company CareFusion, but that revival was short-lived; this year, Wein’s Manhattan festival participation was limited to his role as piano player and frontman for the Newport All-Stars during the Blue Note Jazz Festival.

Before that gig, Wein said he was happy to be simply making music and leaving the production worries to others. He was being clever, but he had a point: Mounting a jazz festival in New York now means working without corporate sponsorship or the household names (Dizzy, Ella, Miles) that once anchored Wein’s affairs. This reality can foster scintillating programming—there’s a bright constellation of both established and up-and-coming musicians—and allow for fresh audience-development models. Yet it also poses challenges.

The question now isn’t simply what makes for a New York Jazz Festival but what makes one sustainable. It underlies a petition circulated online by the Winter/Undead Festival Musicians Organizing Committee, which includes prominent players like saxophonist Steve Coleman, pianists Jason Moran and Orrin Evans, conductor Butch Morris, and guitarists Mary Halvorson and Marc Ribot. The committee took issue with the terms of employment at June’s Undead Jazzfest, which hosted more than 50 performances during four nights, and Winter Jazzfest, a longer-running January event created by producer Brice Rosenbloom; his company, Boom Collective, partnered with producer Adam Schatz’s Search and Restore to create the Undead fest.

“As major critically acclaimed festivals drawing overflow crowds and international attention, the Undead and Winter Jazz Festivals have a responsibility to respect community standards of pay and other conditions,” states the petition, which calls on the promoters to meet with the musicians’ committee and representatives from Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians for “good faith negotiation.”

Though the committee’s recruitment email had been targeted to musicians, New York Times critic Nate Chinen blogged about it, turning what might have been private negotiations public. NPR jazz blogger Patrick Jarenwattananon wondered aloud a question that might have occurred to fest-goers who can do the math suggested by the lack of corporate money, wealth of great bands, and relatively low admission charges: “If you’ve been following the growth of [Winter] and Undead, the question wasn’t if this was coming, but when? And how?”

Yet the promoters say they were taken by surprise. “It was a serious concern that the musicians felt the need to circulate a petition,” says Rosenbloom. “Still, we see this as an opportunity to convey our role. We need to work as supporters of musicians and not at odds with them.”

Schatz said that Undead lost a considerable amount of money this year and last. “Yet once the audience is fully developed,” he says, “none of this will be an issue.” Until then? “Our next step is to seek out additional financial support so we can pay artists better without losing even more money ourselves.”

That, and sit down with the musicians’ committee, which has already taken place; meetings will resume this week. (Still at issue is whether the promoters will recognize the union’s role as negotiator.) As one musician close to the situation explained, a petition was needed to represent the coalition of musicians fairly: “It would be a very slim festival without those who’ve already signed on to the petition,” he said.

Ribot is no stranger to such organizing. In 1999, he helped negotiate on musicians’ behalf regarding the Knitting Factory’s Texaco Jazz Festival, securing a $200 minimum per player for each engagement for groups of six musicians or less. “What this is all about is helping musicians articulate our needs and wants,” he said.

Audiences have a stake in these negotiations. It would be a shame to threaten, for instance, what Ribot articulated on Undead’s opening night at (le) poisson rouge. To close a riveting solo set, he switched from acoustic guitar to electric and unexpectedly dug into John Cage’s “Some of the Harmony of Maine,” bending overtones and feedback into delicate lines and shiny waves of sound.

Ribot was onstage at the Abrons Arts Center a week earlier in duet with bassist and violinist Henry Grimes during the 16th annual Vision Festival, this country’s essential gathering of avant-garde improvising musicians. The two found communion of the freest and highest order, and they extended a thrilling story of musical revival that began with Grimes’s resurfacing at Vision’s 2003 edition, after decades off the scene.

Moments like these seem serendipitous, but happen by design. There’s a nurturing context, more hard fought to sustain during the past few years due to the drying up of institutional grants, according to Vision producer Patricia Nicholson. And it involves maintaining reasonable pay scales for musicians (Vision’s pay exceeds the minimum requested from Undead). The comparison is imperfect; Vision is a nonprofit organization, while Undead and Winter are businesses. Yet the principle seems clear enough. “This is a labor of love,” Parker says. “But artists can’t give things away.”

In an email, George Wein wrote: “The world has changed. Would I do a festival again? Yes. The purpose of the festival would be to support the jazz community.” In this changed world, promoters like Rosenbloom and Schatz also wish to support a community—or maybe even build one from scratch. They have smart and ambitious ideas. Their community begins with the musicians at the negotiating table.