I first began attending jazz festivals as a fan and then eventually as a participant. Nothing could beat the opportunity to see in person some of the great artists that previously, I only had a connection to on recordings. However, after attending several of the bigger festivals I began to notice a trend. I was in my early twenties when I made the observation that, each year, the same personalities and groups were appearing on all of the festivals. The period that I'm referring to is the late 70s and early 80s. The lineups at that time consisted of heavyweights and icons, of the caliber of maybe Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Williams, The Modern Jazz Quartet, Tony Bennett, Dave Brubeck, Nancy Wilson, Oscar Peterson, and some others. Despite their rank and obvious historical importance, I, being a young and somewhat impatient up-and-comer who was eager to hear things that I felt were a bit more modern, inspiring and less nostalgic, had absolutely no interest in seeing and hearing the same few artists year after year. It was a formula that only got worse for those of us who wanted to see the "real" cats do their thing live. There was very little variety in the presentations and we didn’t feel as if our interests or tastes were being considered where the programming was concerned. The repeated appearances (and repertoire) of the same acts were frequent to the exclusion of other great artists and it was impossible to overlook. Everything felt hopelessly formulaic and pandered to the ideals of another generation, it seemed.
Throughout the 80s, the lineups steadily became somewhat lighter in content, were more audience-friendly and decidedly pop-oriented. Artists like Al Jarreau, George Benson, Spyro Gyra, Manhattan Transfer, Diane Schurr etc. were heavily featured. Many “serious” artists were displaced or ignored completely in an effort to make room for these “guaranteed seat fillers”. I was overwhelmed and annoyed that I couldn’t see the likes of a Joe Henderson, Jack DeJohnette, Woody Shaw, McCoy Tyner, etc, or any of what I considered truly innovative and inspiring artists at any of the big festivals. All the schedules seemed to offer were crowd pleasers, Grammy winners and artists who topped in the annual music magazine polls. As time as passed, things have evolved to the point that these days, pop artists almost completely dominate the bookings, along with the jazz “top 10” artists who appear on ALL of the festivals. There is a marked imbalance in the bookings and presentations which is also much too obvious to ignore. I won’t post any names or acts because it is in poor taste to do so, not to mention that most of them are friends of mine. In fact, I can’t blame the artists themselves for this deterioration of variety in programming. Everyone wants and needs the work. The charge lies in that the booking agents, arts presenters and festival promoters consistently fail to provide the public with a broader presentation of the richness that the jazz scene offers (or SHOULD offer) because of their inability to give artists that they do not know on a "name" basis a shot.
So, there is a very real problem which should be addressed, which is that the representation of the entire creative music world has been reduced to the output represented by a mere handful of artists who have, and never will change or modify their music for fear of alienating the fickle tastes of the people who booked them in the first place. Unfortunately, the promoters don’t have any real idea of what is truly progressive or provocative “on the street” because their information is solely gotten from the content of magazines and critic's polls. I never see any of the festival promoters in the clubs scouting for the “next” new artist. I do, however, see musicians pop up all of a sudden on every festival every summer – and I wonder where in the world they came from, and how did they emerge from total obscurity to getting major bookings without having “paid dues” or having cut their teeth with an established veteran? Some get through because of leverage and positioning enforced by their management or associated booking agencies. Others reflect obvious star power and money making appeal, which promoters who could care less about "art" absolutely salivate over. I've seen established veterans get bumped from program rosters so that these new "stars" are allowed the prime festival slots. The other issue is that since there are fewer and fewer situations for artists of any genre to reach masses of listeners at once, the "jazz" festivals are now dominated by artists and groups that feature absolutely no improvisation. This phenomenon continues to weaken the ranks and cheapen the integrity of the scene as a whole and unfortunately, I see no easy end to it. Well, maybe a first step would be to stop falsely classifying the afforementioned events as jazz festivals. Why not simply just call them music festivals? Simply co-opting a popular term in an effort to give credibility and cachet to what is actually a soul or pop music fest is just plain wrong and has aided in the the destruction of the idiom as well as any regard for it.
Let's face it, promoters are absolutely catering to the corporate sponsors that support their events financially. These businesses want a positive return on their investment. They aren't in it due to their love of music. They could care less. Their concern is that as many people as possible see their ads and banners, which are prominently displayed at venues, in the pamphlets and programs.
And to be fair, some festivals do seem to get it right. But generally speaking, when some wonder what all the hoopla is about concerning why serious improvising musicians opt to disassociate themselves from the word "jazz" and what it represents, one quick look at some "jazz" festival lineups will give them all the answers that they need.