I remember when I first started going to jazz festivals as a fan and eventually as a participant. I was in my late teens and early twenties when I made the observation that, each year, the same personalities and groups were appearing on all of the festivals. I’m talking late 70s and early 80s. The lineups would then consist of maybe Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, the MJQ, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, Oscar Peterson and others that I, being a young (and impatient) up-and-comer who was eager to hear things a bit more modern, inspiring and less nostalgic, had absolutely no interest in seeing and hearing – especially year after year. It was a formula that only got even worse. There was no variety and I didn’t feel as if my interests or tastes were being considered where the programming was concerned.
Throughout the 80s the lineups steadily became a bit lighter, audience-friendly and more pop-oriented. Artist like Al Jarreau, George Benson, Spyro Gyra, etc. were in heavy rotation. Many “serious” artists were displaced in order to make room for these “guaranteed seat fillers”. I was annoyed that I couldn’t see Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, etc, or any of what I considered truly innovative and inspiring artists at any of the big festivals. All they seemed to book were crowd pleasers, Grammy winners and artists who topped in the annual magazine music polls. Later on, it got even worse to the point that these days, pop artists completely dominate the bookings, along with the jazz “top 10” artists who appear on ALL of the festivals. I won’t post any names or acts because it is in poor taste to do so, not to mention that most of them are friends of mine. In fact, I don’t blame the artists for this deterioration of variety in programming. I blame the booking agents and festival promoters for their failure to provide the public with a broader presentation of the richness that the jazz scene offers.
So, there is a very real problem which should be addressed, which is that the representation of the entire creative music world has been reduced to the output represented by a handful of artists who have, and never will change or modify their music for fear of alienating the fickle tastes of the people who booked them in the first place. Unfortunately, the promoters don’t have any real idea of what is truly progressive or provocative “on the street” because their information is solely gotten from the content of magazines and polls. I never see any of the festival promoters in the clubs scouting for the “next” new artist. I do, however, see musicians pop up all of a sudden on every festival every summer – and I wonder where in the world they came from, and how did they emerge from total obscurity to getting major bookings without having “paid dues” or having cut their teeth with an established veteran? This phenomenon continues to weaken the ranks and cheapen the integrity of the scene as a whole and unfortunately, I see no end to it.