What qualifies as a jazz festival?


Jazz is a fairly fluid term these days, characterizing music that centers around improvisation as a key element.  Many people have different definitions of jazz, and for those who frequent jazz festivals who are casual music goers, it is confusing because the massive amounts of music performed at these festivals is played by pop, R&B, rock and smooth jazz artists.  Famous jazz festivals such as Montreux, Newport, and the Playboy Jazz Festival are relying on major pop and R&B stars, not jazz musicians as headline acts.


Musicians such as Wallace Roney and Antonio Sanchez  in social media posts among many others have made their displeasures known at calling jazz festivals such when the majority of artists aren’t jazz.  A reason for this, a phenomenon that’s been increasing over the past few decades is jazz doesn’t make enough money on it’s own; for example it only makes up 1% of all music sales physical or digital. There  have been significant funding cuts over there years that have forced festivals to make significant changes to their programs and invite popular acts from other genres, and for those with open minded tastes who love all music and embrace all styles of jazz it’s no problem.  For others however who prefer their jazz in a hard bop mode, or generally acoustic, it creates a big backlash about festivals being not jazz.  John Kelman noted regarding target audiences and funding cuts: in his excellent 2011 essay for All About Jazz, When Is A Jazz Festival (Not) a Jazz Festival  “OIJF(Ottawa International Jazz Festival) lost $80,000 in its bottom line last year, and like every jazz festival in the world, is also having to deal with the very real issue of demographics. Visit most jazz festivals and the preponderance of gray-hairs and no-hairs speaks to the challenge (and, largely, failure) of bringing a younger audience through the gates. And this isn’t just a matter of ultimate survival, though jazz festivals that continue to appeal exclusively to the aging baby boomer population will most certainly go under within the next 10-15 years—if that. It’s a matter of current economics.”  He also cites tourism is a huge part of the equation and if festivals are unable to obtain that target audience, the funding will suffer.


Another reason may be the tastes of festivalgoers.  Ever since so called smooth jazz radio took hold in the mid eighties and dominated markets, tastes for more straight ahead and more improvisatory jazz fell out of favor, interests grew in musics like hip hop, alternative and electronic genres.  The Montreux Jazz Festival founded by the late Claude Nobs in 1967 always had dedicated days devoted to other music, but much of the festival is dedicated to other music, the Live At Montreux series of CD and DVD/blu ray releases has concerts from KoRn. Wu Tang Clan and Deep Purple, with relatively few jazz releases.  Festivals like the Arizona Jazz Festival in 2015 included acts like Blackstreet, Keith Sweat, Jodeci, Peter White and Rick Braun, no jazz content to speak of.  This past summer’s Playboy Jazz Festival with a Youtube search showed that one of the top acts was Common.  This year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage fest has all R&B and hip hop as headliners.  The John Coltrane  Jazz Festival committed the biggest anti purist act a few years ago when Kenny G. was the headliner causing a firestorm of controversy.  Such controversy has some merit, because artists like G. (born Kenny Gorelick) have never called themselves jazz musicians, and due to the way they are marketed, they get placed in the jazz category.


What defines a jazz festival is one that has improvised music as a focus.  For that one can look at the Vision fest, which primarily features avant garde acts.  Blue Note Records sponsors a festival every year with label acts, but other genres appear.  The biggest solution would be to just call these music festivals, the days of pure jazz festivals with headliners like Art Blakey are long gone, but when top notch jazz is featured it’s only a positive thing.  More awareness and education about jazz may bring it back to the forefront.


As always remember that the New York Jazz Workshop offers courses with world class faculty in disciplines like improvisation, composition,  arranging, saxophone, vocals, enriching intensives, for beginner, intermediate and advanced musicians.  There is always something happening at the New York Jazz Workshop.  Below you will find links to some of the festivals mentioned in this article.