When is a jazz festival not a jazz festival?

When bookers and promoters go ‘cross-genre’ and book music that falls outside the stylistic definition of jazz, yet keep ‘jazz’ in the festival title.

It’s not just including, say, a blues artist or a newgrass group — both genres have some common ground with jazz with improvisational elements, for example. An artist such as Zoey Deschanel (who was a feature at this year’s Montreal Jazz Festival) has no stylistic connection to jazz whatsoever. (To be clear, I am not criticizing her as a musical artist.)

While a certain stylistic ‘exclusivity’ is expected when an event is termed, say, a jazz festival, I realize there is also the hard and honest bottom line to consider. Can the presenter afford to produce a festival that caters to one type/style/genre of music? Well, money must be made if performers and staff and venues and licenses are to be paid. However, I believe that a disservice is done to the avid jazz fan, to the non-jazz artist who is featured and to the very perception of musical genres.

Jazz suffers from a skewed identity to begin with and the individual perception of the exact definition of jazz is all over the place. As it stands, too many listeners consider it to be background music, something that provides a soothing backdrop while eating dinner or schmoozing over cocktails. While that is one stylistic aspect of jazz, it is by no means the only one, no more than All Rock Music  = Metallica or All Latin Music = Salsa.

Within the realm of jazz there exists quite a variety, from piano trios to big bands to electric fusion to 1950s-style vocals (and on and on….). I do wonder how many of Zoey D”s fans would catch her set then check out, say, Vijay Iyer’s group or Bobby Zankel’s Warriors of the Wonderful Sound? A few, perhaps, but I believe that, ultimately, both the pop artists and the jazz artists will both suffer in the long run. Zoey D’s fans may decide they don’t want to brave ‘jazz crowds’ and put off seeing her until she plays a venue that they are comfortable with. Of course, jazz fans who would be open to experiencing new talent alongside their established favorites will avoid Zoey D and end up with a tainted attitude toward the festival’s music policy.

I believe there is enough variety within the jazz realm to feature, say, traditional, contemporary, fusion and avant-garde acts alongside one another and generate a broad range of attendees. Jazz has a tough time as it is when it comes to definitions and preconceptions.

Of course, from a different perspective, what if a metal festival included India Arie? I think I’ve rambled on enough — now I need to practice….


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