by Peter Hum
Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen
“Sadly, reality is not programming solely for the pleasure of the 200 or so jazz fans who will turn up, no matter what,” say the Ottawa International Jazz Festival’s executive producer, Catherine O’Grady, in her opinion piece below, which she submitted today to the Citizen.
By Catherine O’Grady
On a balmy, early summer night—when I look across a sea of happy faces in Confederation Park—I am convinced that I am experiencing Ottawa at its best.
To help put blissful smiles on the faces of thousands of concert-goers also convinces me that I have one of the best jobs in the city. To borrow a line from lyricist Howard Dietz, there is nothing finer than sharing time with you and the night and the music.
It has been a beautiful experience to create that feeling via the incomparable Sonny Rollins — the last reigning king of jazz’s golden years in the 1950s — with the hard-swinging Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra and crown prince Wynton Marsalis, and with the trio of pianist Brad Mehldau.
I get the same joy watching audiences listening hard and enjoying the otherworldly improvisations of Wayne Shorter’s quartet at Dominion-Chalmers United Church or grooving to the extra-sensory communication between the members of pianist Steve Kuhn’s trio inside the National Arts Centre’s Studio; in my view, one of the very best places to witness the creation of music in the country.
As I say, I have a great job.
It is also, sometimes, a tough job, balancing the tastes, desires and opinions of music fans against the availability of touring artists, the logistics of venues and the realities of the budget we have to work with. Occasionally, it can feel like the voices calling for more mainstream jazz artists on our mainstage are threatening to drown out the music — even when that music is coming from world-class superstars like Aretha Franklin and Willie Nelson.
The burble from the nay-sayers certainly obscures the remarkable improvising artists like Colin Stetson, Ambrose Akinmusire and Christian McBride, who — along with dozens of other jazz artists — populate our six indoor venues in this, our 34th year of bringing great music to the Capital.
In a perfect world, all those artists would reach and enthral capacity audiences under the stars in Confederation Park, but that is not the reality of programming — and paying for — a 10-day music festival in this day and age.
That reality includes: a 500-per-cent increase in artist fees I have witnessed in the past decade; the diminishing audiences who have turned up for jazz artists the calibre of John Abercrombie, Chick Corea and even Wynton Marsalis when they have returned to Ottawa for followup visits; and knowing that some musicians — musicians who helped make the TD Ottawa Jazz Festival what it is at age 34—must be presented at a loss if the festival is to stay true to its mandate.
Sadly, reality is not programming solely for the pleasure of the 200 or so jazz fans who will turn up, no matter what.
In Ottawa, the handful of us who program live music must face the reality that there is a steadily increasing number of alternatives that vie for the attention and pocket money of potential audience members. It is cold comfort that this is reality for music programmers in most other cities in North America, as well.
From Vancouver to New Orleans, festivals have been forced to diversify their programming to maintain previous attendance marks and meet rising costs. Cross-subsidization — using profits that can be realized from meeting the proven demand for artists like Willie Nelson to offset the costs for lesser-known jazz artists — is just one more reality.
I remain proud of the artists we put on every one of our stages, just as I remain convinced that I have one of the best jobs in the city.
When I look out on Confederation Park one beautiful night this summer, at thousands of happy people, celebrating the joy of spontaneous music together, I will feel that rush of satisfaction again. And the feeling will be intensified because I will know that smaller audiences are getting just as much joy at our indoor shows.