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Name that sound

EILEEN SCHULTE
Published August 29, 2004

One day in 1965, Martin Gray and a few buddies from officers candidate school in Rhode Island left their base and headed to the Newport music festival wanting to dig some hip tunes.

As they relaxed in the grass, they saw an announcer come on stage. They didn't pay much notice when he asked them to give a warm welcome to a new dude on the scene, someone who might have a bit of talent. Give him a shot, he urged.

"And then there's this scraggly guy with a great big do," said Gray, now vice president of the Belleview Biltmore Resort.

Bob Dylan started to play and was promptly booed off the stage.

"I didn't know what was going on," Gray said. "I thought he was great."

As most people now know, Dylan had violated festival tradition by having the gall to play an electric guitar. And there was something else that perhaps no one thought of in that angry, if arrogant, moment:

Although the Newport concert is considered the original jazz festival in the United States, and was still widely recognized for the genre, Dylan was, um, folk.

Since its inception, the festival has undergone several transformations.

Like Newport, jazz events around the world, including the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, don't stick to a diverse lineup of straight-ahead jazz.

They can't.

They know the big crowds simply won't come, even if it's free. That means fewer people who will see the sponsors' banners and no one to buy glasses of wine.

So they have to offer more variety, a big name, even if it isn't a jazzy one.

"We don't have household names like Dizzy Gillespie in jazz anymore, except Branford Marsalis," said Lauren Deutsch, executive director of the Chicago Jazz Festival. "So we program it so people who come to hear that big name will end up, almost by accident, discovering a great jazz band."

That leaves purists complaining that events like Clearwater's four-day event have gone too mainstream, its music lineup corrupted by deep-pocket corporate sponsors and a governing board with ambitions to make the concert a nationally recognized event on the scale of the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Is Lou Rawls, who played in 2002, really jazz? they ask.

But talk to industry experts and they'll say stop complaining: Tampa Bay is just lucky to have the festival at all.

After all, where else can you catch the Neville Brothers and Herbie Hancock grooving live onstage - for free?

Although it has its critics, one thing is certain: the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, slated for Oct. 14-17 this year, is one of the last free jazz festivals left in the country.

And in the face of rising artists fees, it is trying to remain both accessible and true to its musical roots.

"We have had people suggest Michael McDonald and Bonnie Raitt as headliners," said Jane Olds, president of Jazz Force, the organization which runs the event. "But we have to measure it against our vision and mission. They don't fall within that very broad definition of jazz."

Even some of the event's harshest critics realize the event is worthwhile and valuable to the community, and that the organizers do their best to put on a good show.

"This year's fest, while not strong with straight-ahead jazz, has some fine music that deserves local support," said Jimmy Lyons, co-host of the Charles Vann Jazz Show on WMNF-FM 88.5 and president of the Tampa Jazz Club. "It's being supplanted by music that's not jazz in its rhythms and musical structure."

However, he said, "my opinion is the festival can appeal to both groups, smooth and (traditional) jazz aficionados."

"I fully support the Jazz Holiday board," he said.

But what is jazz, anyway?

Olds said this year, the festival's music selection committee did in-depth research on jazz and found it comprises a lot of styles ranging from ragtime and dixieland, swing, bebop, hard bebop and modern bebop.

Clearly, the genre is difficult to define, in part because it is always evolving.

"The word jazz, even from the beginning, has been hard to define," said Jack Wilkins, a professor of jazz studies at the University of South Florida School of Music and a past Jazz Holiday performer.

He tells his students improvisation is the key, "making music on the spot."

He said jazz "is such a high art form, an expression of pure art, that sometimes it doesn't qualify as pop music," which poses a problem for festival organizers who must appeal to the masses to meet its annual budget.

"I think there is probably pressure from the sponsors," Wilkins said. "They want assurances large numbers of people are going to come."

But although that might be true, Olds is quick to point out sponsors have no say over who will perform.

"They have nothing to do with the lineup," she said. "I think it should be in the hands of the Jazz Holiday. They can make certain suggestions to and they do. Reba McEntire was suggested."

That idea was politely nixed, she said.

For its part, Ruth Eckerd Hall, a sponsor that helped develop the 2004 program, is delighted with the outcome.

"In 100 years people will be listening to the Neville Brothers," said Robert Freedman, Ruth Eckerd's chief executive and president. "The ones who are great become eternal."

Gray, the Belleview Biltmore's vice president, whose company is also a Jazz Holiday sponsor, not only agreed, but went a step further.

"The lineup is great, pretty eclectic," he said. "I don't think I could take three days of pure jazz."

Eileen Schulte can be reached at 727 445-4153 or schulte@sptimes.com

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