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Controversy over non-jazz acts reaches Ottawa Jazz Festival Annual Meeting

Headliners on the 2011 OJF Program Guide were not mentioned at the Jazzfest's Annual meeting

The continuing controversy over the choice of artists at the 2011 Ottawa Jazz Festival resurfaced at the Festival's Annual General Meeting (AGM) on November 23.

Long-time festival supporter and former board member Gaby Warren told the meeting he was concerned that the festival had split into “two parallel festivals”: one in Confederation Park, and one in the National Arts Centre, with “most of the quality, if one really follows jazz, inside the NAC”.

“Confederation Park is where most of the people are, and traditionally this is where we try to hook the people on jazz, so that they will not only attend the festival in future, but they'll support good jazz throughout the year.”

He asked the festival board and staff to “use your ingenuity” to find headliners in the Park who “reflect more stimulating jazz”, and which would still draw good crowds. He noted he had suggested several names already to Festival staff. He also asked that Festival ads in jazz magazines like Downbeat be tailored to jazz fans, rather than highlighting non-jazz big names.

Executive Producer Catherine O'Grady said she and Programming Manager Petr Cancura had been working very hard to try to design the 2012 Festival to make it “as interesting to jazz aficionados as it is to people who want a festival experience. Certainly jazz aficionados and our loyal members and our loyal audience are absolutely our priority.”

During the festival, Warren said, practically all his time was spent inside the NAC, unlike previous years. He would have liked to attend more of the Great Canadian jazz concerts in the park, but the timing of the indoor Studio series conflicted with them.

Gaby Warren: “two parallel festivals”O'Grady responded that the Studio series was an experiment in order to accommodate artists who weren't appropriate for the park. She said that when trumpeter Paolo Fresu and guitarist Ralph Towner played on the main stage in 2010, Fresu complained to her afterwards that people were not listening to his music. “It was completely lost because it was outdoors and it was a complete and utter waste of time.” (See the OttawaJazzScene.ca review of that concert: Mainstage duo silences Confederation Park).

“That stuck with me. It really, really struck home that, much as we were trying to honour a huge audience by putting this stuff outside, we weren't really doing the artists a great service, by putting all of these lovely artistically meritorious projects on a huge stage where a lot of people came just to hang out. … Small, dynamic, really acoustically motivated jazz projects were not served well by being on a main stage.” She said that, of the artists in the Studio in 2011, only Christian McBride's Inside Straight group would have been appropriate for the main stage.

“The artists need to feel that kind of connection with their audience that they can't possibly get in a huge environment like being outdoors.”

She noted that a 600 or 700 seat venue would be ideal for many jazz projects, but none is available downtown, and the city is not interested in building such a concert hall.

O'Grady stated she did take Warren's point about more jazz on the main stage, and she said they were doing their best to find the projects that were appropriate. She noted that many acts simply aren't available in a given year, or cannot be coordinated with other festivals to save travel costs. She said the festival continued to be committed to its loyal audience, because “you are the reason we do this. If we ignored you we would be nowhere.”

But “we do have to make money, we do have to work with what's available, we do have to honour and celebrate Canadian jazz artists which we will always continue to do and which never make any money for us.” O'Grady said that artist fees had increased “astronomically” over the last five years: “routinely we're paying tens and tens of thousands of dollars for jazz artists, and they don't make us any money.”

She said the festival had been sensitive to the positive and negative feedback it had received about the 2011 jazz festival line-up, being mindful of the necessity of working within a financially sustainable environment.

Warren noted that some very quiet acts had been highly successful in the park: for example Brad Mehldau's solo show which was “just mesmerizing”. “Trios and smaller groups have appeared in Confederation Park, [attracting] large crowds, and people [were] in rapture.”

The conflict was not reflected in the AGM's printed reports. Those from O'Grady and the Festival President Rick Brooks mentioned many prominent jazz artists from 2011 as well as K.D. Lang, but completely omitted two non-jazz headliners who dominated the festival's advertising: Robert Plant and Elvis Costello.

However, O'Grady did announce a musician with impeccable jazz credentials to headline the Festival's winter event: Montreal pianist Oliver Jones will play at Dominion Chalmers United Church on Saturday, February 4, 2012. She said staff had just finished the programming for the three-day event, and other artists will shortly be announced. Concerts will also run on February 2 and 3, and will include local projects and collaborations. Venues will include the NAC Fourth Stage, Cafe Paradiso, the SAW Gallery, and the Mercury Lounge. Details will be available soon on the Festival website.

The festival recorded a surplus this year: $162,419. This is almost the same as the 2009 surplus ($159,352). In 2010, it recorded a deficit of $86,736: however, that year was the festival's 30th anniversary, for which it presented special programming. It also ran a deficit in its 25th anniversary year.Ottawa Jazz Festival treasurer John Jackson  ©Brett Delmage, 2008

Treasurer John Jackson said he was particularly pleased at the almost 30% increase in box office revenue: $782,447 in 2011, compared to $604,878 in 2010 and $526,148 in 2009. This increase was “the key to our success”, he said. Ticket sales were up by similar amounts for both the winter series and the festival proper.

O'Grady attributed part of this to the “phenomenal success” of the festival's social media and marketing strategy (Facebook and Twitter) and on-line technology, all of which drove ticket sales. She also noted that the festival is using analytical tools to much more closely monitor use of the festival's website.

The cost of hiring performers also increased, by 7.2%: $948,898 in 2011, compared to $884,990 in 2010. The main-stage artists who attracted the smallest audiences were Elvis Costello and Hugh Masekela. Jackson said that in both cases this was primarily due to the weather.

Grants to the festival were $971,242, up by 3.5% from 2010, and down by a tiny amount from 2009. O'Grady said that 2012 would be an uncertain year for grants to the festival, because many of the three-year grant agreements under which it operated expired at the end of 2011. One federal grant program has yet to have its overall 2012 budget number assigned. The Festival has reapplied for grants from the City of Ottawa and the Ontario and federal governments, and O'Grady said she was optimistic about the festival's chances: “there's no reason to think that we're in jeopardy. We're consistently rated extremely highly amongst the funders.”

Some of the Ottawa Jazz Festival volunteers at orientation  ©Brett Delmage, 2008One important factor is the festival's 500 volunteers, who give 22,000 hours of their time. “Volunteers play an enormous role in how adjudicators assess those applications. The relevance we have to our community is directly reflected in the amount of participation back from volunteers. That's an extraordinarily important criterion that's used to help deliberate.”

The Festival estimated its 2011 attendance at 295,000. This number includes both ticketed and free concerts. It counts pass holders, for example, each time they attend a single concert, meaning one enthusiastic Gold Pass holder could be counted as an attendance of 25 or more. O'Grady said this method of counting was in accordance with the tourism model approved by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism. 13% of this attendance (38,350) was tourists (those who live more than 100km from Ottawa).

The attendance was up only marginally from 2010 (292,000). The number of tourists was up by 3%, after increasing by 11.5% in 2010.

In other Festival news:

  • Because of the stage collapse at Bluesfest this summer, O'Grady said that the Jazz Festival was revisiting its emergency preparedness policy, and in particular how this policy is communicated to volunteers. They are currently preparing a comprehensive emergency plan for Confederation Park.

  • 2012 Festival passes will also be for sale on the website this week.

  • The dates for the 2012 Festival have finally been confirmed: Thursday, June 21 to Sunday, July 1 (the 2008 festival was in fact earlier than this, starting on June 20). The final day will consist of Canada Day programming, ending by 7 p.m.

  • Other issues mentioned at the meeting included improving information about accessibility (for example, Para Transpo pickup locations and wheelchair access) on the festival's website, and making the festival easier to use (e.g. larger signs) for the visually impaired. Festival volunteer coordinator John Cvetan said the Festival is in the process of improving this for next year.

The festival's voting membership consists of its volunteers (500 in 2011). However, the meeting only attracted a small number: 26 at the call to order, plus another 5 or so afterward. Almost three times as many sent in proxies. There was no change in the membership of the board of directors. No nominations were received, and six of the eleven board members were reelected for another two-year term.

    – Alayne McGregor

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