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.)


kcmeesha said...

I feel that I am one of the people responsible for no attendance at a potential jazz festival. Or maybe it's more correct to say I belong to the type of people who should be in a jazz audience but aren't. For the longest time I was dreaming about attending jazz concerts and when I finally had a chance to go, I realized that I am getting bored after few songs and it was the end of my short-lived jazz fandom. So there is a disconnect - I like the idea of listening to jazz but not too excited about actually doing it. When I think about it, I realize that there is a certain amount of work and knowledge that makes you a better consumer of jazz and I am too lazy to do it. I want to know what you know without spending a lifetime learning it. I know you said before that you are not inclined to guide groups of people to a jazz concert,but maybe that's what is needed here. I had a pretty good success with my FB #kcsupperclub group where we try different restaurants every month. People eat foods that seemed to be too scary or exotic before,it's easier and more fun to do it with a group. Maybe such approach would bring about small change in perception. I'd be willing to join and help you promote it. After all, there are wine appreciation classes and lectures before classical concerts are not uncommon.
To be fair I don't go to Irish fest because I hate crowds and I think it's just as much about drinking as it is about the music.

Michael said...

This is one of your best posts in awhile, I think, HiB. I would strongly object to your assertion that the KC jazz community is "disjointed"--at least in comparison to the jazz community in other similar-sized markets. In fact I'd say almost the exact opposite. If we're comparing it to other "communities" in the city, then maybe it is disjointed by that standard, I don't know. Perhaps this is a commentary less on KC being particularly good, but just that other cities are just that bad. But I know that if you spent 2 months in, say, Cincinnati, your perspective on the community aspect of our music would change.

Happy, a couple of questions. Firstly, do you think that the large crowd was particularly interested in Irish culture or heritage, or do you think they were mostly attracted by the opportunity to drink copious amounts of beer outdoors with a bunch of other people drinking copious amounts of beer outdoors? I suspect that any "festival" would draw well if it centered heavily around justifiable public drunkenness. I am certain that, for instance, the addition of live jazz at this Irish festival would not have affected attendance or the amount of money spent negatively or positively--it would have just been background scenery/music for people getting hammered. I guess I am saying the relative lack of popularity of the jazz events might be due to the fact that alcohol is not as readily available, or as synonymous with jazz as it is with, cough, Irish heritage.

My other question is, what were the expenses to put on this Irish festival by organizers? You mentioned The Elders being booked. What else did they have to pay for? I'm asking out of sincere ignorance, because I don't even know exactly what an Irish festival consists of. In order to book a jazz festival with the artists you mentioned, you'd have to have a hefty, hefty, hefty budget, and I have a feeling you'd have to draw an even bigger crowd than the one seen at the Irish fest to turn a profit.

kcjazzlark said...

"With so many groups competing for dollars, the jazz landscape has become a political minefield."

No, disconnected jazz groups competing for dollars, and trying to be the group which finally does it right, has left the scene a minefield since before I chaired the Jazz Commission -- ostensibly created to clear those mines, which it failed to do -- nearly 25 years ago. The Kansas City jazz minefield is nothing new.

Good post.

Anonymous said...

Meh, I don't think it was a good post. At least you actually gave an opinion I suppose. For the most part, you just sound buttsore that the Irish fest is more fun than the Jazz fest.

There's no big awesome Jazz Festival with actually respectable jazz talent because there's no demand for it.

It seems like the Irish Fest isn't so full of itself.

Anonymous said...

It's obviously more fun to pretend you're Irish than it is to pretend you're a jazz fan.

Cb said...

*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?*

That festival lineup would be cool indeed!

Some consolation, perhaps? Robert Glasper will be performing in the Blue Room on the Monday night before Rhythm & Ribs.

lol - another good post, HIB!

Peace, Cb

Russell Thorpe said...

I'm gonna go dig up a jazz leprechaun and hold his gold hostage!! That way we can use his bewitched treasure to lure those heavy hitters into our faery circle and force them to teach us their secrets!! Then we will use their blood to seal a dark pact with the city council that involves bullshit accounting like TIF to fund THEWORLDSLARGESTANDMOSTSUCCESSFULJAZZFESTIVALEVER without having to pay a dime of real money!!! (or at least leave the next generation saddled with those bills in addition to paying for my viagra... oh wait, this isn't that kind of forum.. )

Anonymous said...

What we need are SPONSORS willing to make that jazz festival possible. I'm of the "if you build it they will come" mindset. However, At least one of the people on your list of possible headliners wants six figures just to leave the house.

bigsteveno said...

Even if you had a festival with James Carter, Ornette Coleman, Robert Glasper, Charlie Haden, Vijay Iyer, Pat Metheny, Sonny Rollins and John Scofield, even if it was perfect weather in a nice setting, even then you wouldn't get anywhere near 100,000 people. I mean, I'd go, but you'd be lucky to get 10,000. All the social media in the world isn't going to make jazz a fun weekend for a significant number of people. Sad but true.

Anonymous said...

The Success of Jazz in the Woods and Prarie Village Jazz fest are that fact that they are "events". Although they have committees, one or two people seem to be the driving force.

Most concert impresarios are lead by one or two people who put their heart and souls into the production and eventually get burnt out because the help is not there.

When the Jazz Ambassadors flourished and made some money, Dean Hampton was the driving force. Also Todd Wilkinson when he was President of KCJA. Also, Mike and Vicki Rollf.

Look at Jon Poses and his series in Columbia. This guy works around the clock on the concerts, promotion, fundrasing etc.

Under the leadership of the great Ahmad Alaadeen the Charlie Parker Sax Salute flourished.

These events take vision and with no vision people perish.

Leon Brady worked tirelessly for his KC Youth Jazz.

We need less do gooders and more doers.