Sunday, September 4, 2011
The Marketing of the Irish
I marveled at the sight of teeming masses Friday at Kansas City Irish Fest. Organizers expected to top last year's attendance of 100,000 during the three three-day event.
How did this happen? Why does a city closely associated with the role it played in the development of jazz lack a major jazz-based festival even as an Irish-themed event attracts massive crowds? The answer, of course, is complicated. Kansas City has a long history of defunct jazz festivals.
Kansas City Irish Fest wasn't always a big deal. I recall attending a modest affair in a Westport parking lot about a dozen years ago. Organizers have dealt with a few setbacks, but the festival continues to grow. I attribute a large part of its success to organic support from the close-knit Irish community. I repeatedly had to fend off eager volunteers Friday. The event's organizers are also brilliant, hardworking and efficient. Take a look at their Thorough. Social. Media. Presence.
Don't tell me these tactics don't pay off. With ticket prices of $5 on Friday and $15 on Saturday and Sunday, the festival clears over a million dollars in gate receipts. It doesn't hurt that the festival boasts one ringer. Kansas City-based band The Elders can easily attract over 1,000 dedicated fans for its one-off concerts. There's just no equivalent on Kansas City's jazz scene.
Before addressing why the local jazz community can't capture the "luck" of the Irish, I'd be negligent if I didn't mention a few existing efforts. The American Jazz Museum presents the Rhythm & Ribs festival next month. I'm a big fan, but this year's version is a one-day event that has a '70s funk band and a blues legend as its top-billed performers. Jazz Winterlude and the Prairie Village Jazz Festival , both Johnson County, Kansas, events, are excellent showcases of top locally-based talent. Jazz In the Woods draws a big crowd for its lineups of smooth jazz and pop.
I support all four events, but where's the Kansas City festival with James Carter, Ornette Coleman, Robert Glasper, Charlie Haden, Vijay Iyer, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins and John Scofield?
Regular readers of Plastic Sax already know my answer to that vexing question. The potential of another serious top-tier jazz festival in Kansas City is buried under the seemingly insurmountable burdens of audience indifference, preconceived bias and a disjointed jazz community. There's no need for me to address the first of these issues at length. I write it about it with predictable frequency at Plastic Sax. Kansas City's best jazz musicians regularly perform for audiences of less than two dozen enthusiasts. Even fewer attended Charlie Parker's gravesite service last week. Recent performances by both The Bad Plus and Ernie Andrews were woefully under-attended.
Semi-professional provocateur Nicholas Payton digs into my second point in an essay he published last month. It doesn't matter if the subject is Coleman Hawkins or Anthony Braxton- the negative baggage attached to the word "jazz" has become exceedingly oppressive. Irish music, on the other hand, is a blank slate for most Americans.
Finally, the jazz community is divided. The lack of grassroots support means that area jazz musicians and jazz presenters must turn to foundations, corporations and government entities to merely subsist. With so many groups competing for dollars, the jazz landscape has become a political minefield.
Our best hope, at least for the foreseeable future, is that one of the festivals mentioned above will evolve into a top-tier jazz event. Until then, Kansas Citians can be content with hosting one of the world's most successful Irish festivals.
(Original image of Kansas City Irish Fest by Plastic Sax.)