How Jazz At The Lake Came To Be

Eric thumb“Life In The Jazz Lane”

by Eric Allison


I don’t know how it works in your family, but important events in my marriage are usually a 3-stage process:

1. Cheryl gets some crazy idea.
2. I tell her all the reasons why this could not possibly work.
3. We do it anyway.

This is exactly the way Jazz At The Lake came to be. Live music and the Fisher family both have deep roots in Sylvan Lake. Her grandfather, Norman Fisher, bought Cobb’s in 1942 and the store was passed down through the family for the next two generations after that. At one time there were three operating dance halls in town playing live music every night of the week during the summer, including jazz and swing styles. With a lot of folks remembering this tradition, Cheryl felt a jazz festival would be a natural fit with the lakeside setting. But, while we had played many jazz festivals and certainly had experience in various aspects of the business side of the music world, we had never done anything remotely like this.

So in the spring of 2003, Cheryl and I met with her cousin Al Fisher and Paint Stop owner Matt Toonders, two prominent local businessmen, over caesers at Pete’s At The Beach to hatch a plan.

We chose the third weekend in August as an ideal time and that date remains to this day. They suggested we approach the Sylvan Lake Heart of Town Association with our idea, the BRZ organization created to strengthen commerce and beautify the downtown area.

We made our pitch but when the votes were counted we were turned down, not because they didn’t think it was a good idea, but for procedural reasons; they had already done their budget for the year and weren’t even sure if sponsoring a festival was a part of their mandate. Our disappointment was quickly assuaged when, after the meeting, a number of the members approached us and offered their own personal support for the festival. So with a few thousand dollars and two green producers we were off to the jazz races.

That first year we had a handful of performances from the Friday night through the Sunday afternoon and we were pleasantly surprised, well OK, shocked at the turnout we had (a great weather weekend sure didn’t hurt). It was apparent that this was a viable event and should be continued (incidentally, Cheryl NEVER says, “I told you so.”). 10 years later, bigger and better every year, it has taken on a life of its own, with Cheryl and I being dragged along behind (often kicking and screaming).

We weren’t even a real “organization” for the first 7 years, just Cheryl and me putting it together with invaluable help from friends who became longtime volunteers. It became increasingly apparent, particularly with the impending demise of our founding sponsor, the Heart of Town Association, that we needed to form a registered non-profit society which we did after the 2009 festival.  We tapped three of our strongest supporters to sit on the board with us.

Randy Fiedler, journalist for the Red Deer Advocate, was in from the first year when he showed up at the Tournament House the afternoon before the festival started to take photos of Cheryl and I setting up the bandstand for the kickoff swing dance that night. Over the past 10 years, Randy has shot literally thousands of pictures during the festival and has captured some incredible moments with his artistry.

Kathy Bradshaw, at first our Volunteer Coordinator and now Festival Manager, has been in since year two. Cheryl and I are dead serious when we say (often) that we don’t think there would be a jazz festival without Kathy. Her help throughout the entire year is invaluable and during the festival she is an absolute dynamo of organization. We still haven’t figured out how she can remain so cheery and have such a great attitude with basically no sleep from Thursday though Monday! I don’t know, maybe it’s that requirement in the Volunteer Manual that drinks must be bought for the Festival Manager if her stress level reaches a certain point.

Bryan Lambertson, former mayor of Sylvan Lake, has been a long time supporter. We first became aware of him through his wife Judy. CTV had sent a crew to Sylvan on the last day of the first festival to film a segment and as Cheryl and I watched it that evening, there was this lovely lady being interviewed with the Dixieland Band playing behind her. She was raving about the festival and when I recognized her, I exclaimed, “Hey, that’s the Mayor’s wife!”

We also could not mount this festival without our fantastic volunteer crew. We have about 40 volunteers each year (always looking for more, by the way!) and, headed by a dedicated core who have been with us year after year, are the epitome of the “can do” and “git ‘er done” attitude. No matter how well the festival is planned, some things inevitably go sideways during the weekend (can you say “Alberta weather in the summer”?). But these folks always take care of biz with a positive attitude, even working double and sometimes triple shifts.

Of course our sponsors are essential to the festival with their ongoing support. The first two years of the festival, there weren’t even any ticketed events–everything was free! Obviously that business model couldn’t sustain itself, but we are proud that we keep the ticket prices reasonable for the handful of events that we do charge for, and the vast majority of events are still free.

So here we are going into our second decade with lots of new and exciting things happening: another great lineup of headliners, a brand new updated website, a Facebook page launched, a new Volunteer Coordinator (Eve Sira, one of my former colleagues at Trilliant Real Estate Group), a “Project Discovery” concert featuring the winners of the Red Deer Festival of the Performing Arts and the Sylvan Celebration of Music, and on and on. By the way, we’re still kicking and screaming, too!

I’ll be writing from time to time about random subjects from my 40+ years as a professional performing jazz musician–“Life in the Jazz Lane” for sure. As trumpeter/jazz educator Herb Pomeroy once said, “Jazz is the most fun you can have with your clothes on!”

Keep Swinging – Eric