This year's Indy Jazz Fest to focus on music purists

September 12, 2009

Indy Jazz Fest’s new promoters are taking a bold step with an already-risky venture.

They’re turning the 10-year-old event into one for jazz purists.

The festival, which culminates Sept. 25 and 26 at The Lawn at White River State Park, does not feature a single R&B, blues or pop act. Instead, the headliner is a big name in jazz, Branford Marsalis.

“Typically, when economic times get tough, festival producers will book more of the crossover artists to get bigger crowds and more sponsors,” said Ed Enright, editor of DownBeat magazine. “It’s admirable—I don’t know if it’s precedented.”


Three local jazz professionals—record label owner Al Hall, nightclub owner David Allee, and band leader Rob Dixon—took over the event in December from the American Pianists Association.

After forming Indy Jazz Fest LLC, the trio scaled down the budget, changed the dates and venues, and formed partnerships with various jazz interests. The festival is now a for-profit enterprise, but Hall said he and his partners also see it as a platform for promoting jazz in general.


“It’ll be good for everybody,” Hall said. “We want to bring more local participation into it.”

At least one veteran festival producer supports the local promoters’ strategy. George Wein, the octogenarian who created the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, said it’s better to appeal to an educated audience than the mainstream.

“In the long run, it’s self-defeating,” Wein said. “You can’t compete with pop.”

Indy Jazz Fest has seen both profitable and money-losing years since its 1999 debut. Rainouts left the original not-for-profit organizers saddled with debt, so they turned it over to the American Pianists Association in 2003.

The pianists association, which holds national competitions for both jazz and classical performers, wanted to see the festival continue, and used it as a fund-raiser.

The APA leveraged grants and sponsorships to produce a three-day festival with a $1.2 million budget. The traditional dates and venue were Father’s Day weekend at Military Park downtown.

In 2008, the festival landed Grammy-winning R&B singer John Legend, but attendance was anemic—about 14,000 over the three days. The jazz fest netted APA about $30,400, according to its 2008 tax return.

Joel Harrison, artistic director and CEO, said the APA’s board finally decided the festival wasn’t serving its core mission.

“We felt the festival would flourish, and APA would flourish, if we separated the two,” said Harrison, who became CEO after Helen Small retired in August 2008.

Indy Jazz Fest LLC paid a “nominal” sum to the APA for the festival trademark. Then the new owners began reshaping the event as they’d always envisioned it.

“All [of a] sudden, we were in control, and we thought, ‘Oh boy,’” Hall said.

Hall, Allee and Dixon are drawing on their respective roles in the local jazz scene. Allee, who owns the Jazz Kitchen in Broad Ripple, booked the national acts. His experience with musician contracts, along with the lack of mainstream artists, will keep the budget around $400,000 to $500,000, Hall said.

Dixon and other musicians from Hall’s record label, Owl Studios, created the Indy Jazz Fest Band and have been performing at local high schools and parks since spring. Dixon also created an all-star high school band, which will perform at the festival.

The Indianapolis Jazz Foundation plans to underwrite the outreach activities. Hall said the side concerts also give the festival a year-round presence, which he hopes will satisfy sponsors. The main sponsor is Marsh Supermarkets.

The festival recently added some smaller sponsors. Lining up corporate support was difficult, Hall said.

“The first thing out of everybody’s mouth is, ‘There’s a lot of change. You’re not in the budget,’” he said. “We’re not used to fund-raising anyway.”

Peak attendance at the jazz festival was about 50,000, which it achieved in the debut year. The new promoters would like to draw 15,000 to The Lawn over two days. For the first year, however, Hall expects just 8,000 to 10,000 people.

While the new promoters aren’t relying on a huge weekend crowd, they have built other hedges into the business plan.

The festival kicks off Sept. 19 with the Joshua Redman Trio at Clowes Memorial Hall. The Butler University venue already had booked Redman, a young jazz star, and later agreed to add Indy Jazz Fest as a co-presenter, Hall said.

The following week, The Vogue in Broad Ripple, Jazz Kitchen and Indiana University jazz guru David Baker will produce their own shows under the Indy Jazz Fest umbrella. Each of those venues or producers will cover their own costs, and possibly share revenue with Indy Jazz Fest, Hall said.

Baker’s show, Sept. 25 at the Madame Walker Theatre Center, is a tribute to Indianapolis-born trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, who died last December.•



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