Jazz theory

Why’d they take the jazz out of the music festival? Money.

Burt Wilson is an avid trombone player, and leader of the Silver Dollar Jazz Band, the first band hired to play at Shakey’s Pizza Parlor in 1955.

As a former member of the board of directors of the Sacramento Traditional Jazz Society and a local jazz musician, I was appalled when the present board recently voted to remove the word “jazz” from the title of the yearly festival. Instead, next year it will become the Sacramento Music Festival. The very few traditional jazz bands invited have been relegated to a single venue to make more room for whatever the STJS board will determine to be “music.”

What really surprised me was that every board member voted to do away with the word “jazz” except one—jazz pianist Bob Ringwald (yes, he’s Molly’s father). Those musician board members who voted for it did so, they said, out of “economic necessity”—which historically means that art must make money or die.

Personally, I consider the board’s action to be a slap in the face of every jazz musician in town. Here is a board composed of musicians and nonmusicians—whose stated mission is to “preserve” traditional jazz—now abandoning it, flushing America’s only true art form down the economic toilet.

Money certainly seems to be at the root of the name change. For years now, the STJS, which is responsible for the yearly festival, has been on the financial ropes. In 2004, Ringwald, pianist Jill Harper and I all ran for the board on a platform of reform. We won. We found out that the festival had been losing $50,000 a year for a long time and was now in the hole to the tune of high six figures. We managed to halt the board’s bloated budget and reform the whole festival plan to where it made sense. Sure, we had to scale down the number of bands, especially costly European jazz bands, but we put the jazz festival on the road to solvency.

A few years ago the STJS borrowed $150,000 from the City of Sacramento to tide them over for a few months. The city loaned the money because it wanted to see the festival succeed because it brings millions of dollars into local businesses during its four-day run each Memorial Day. As a matter of fact, it’s no secret that the city would like to get its hands on the festival, make the music more attractive to a younger audience and turn it into an annual cash cow.

For the past few years, the festival has become an economic game of tag between STJS and the city as both try to balance traditional jazz and the craving for more money. In fact the name change and the virtual elimination of jazz at the festival was done at the behest of certain venues (where jazz was played) who felt that they suffered a huge attendance—and income—drop this year.

Unfortunately, traditional jazz is subject to the Law of Entropy just like anything else—one day it will die of its own doing. It saddens me that the STJS couldn’t come up with some creative marketing ideas that would continue to recognize and preserve traditional jazz in Sacramento. Meanwhile, the group should get out of the festival business altogether.

In his 1950 book Local Color, Truman Capote wrote about the traditional conflict of art and money, “But when they search the ruins of a past civilization in order to explain the life of the people, is it money they enshrine, or is it art, music, a play?”