Op Ed: Winter Jazz Fest

EJ Decker featured

E.J. Decker sings out in a stunning baritone most of the time, but here he opines on the Winter Jazzfest that took place in New York City in early January. Promoters, organizers, future attendees: take note and take notes.

Was this your first Winter Jazz Fest? 

No, I’ve been to roughly 5 or 6 of them.

What was your primary reason for attending? 

Twofold. One, I’m always looking to see established young artists whom I haven’t had the time or focus to catch yet. Folks whom radio friends or writer friends point out as being new and having something to say. Winter Jazz Fest has always had plenty of such artists each year.

Two, it’s heavily slanted to young unknown artists (unknown outside of a few tight-knit current clubs), so it’s a great way to catch up with where the music is being taken each year. As the Fest was always the weekend following Jazz Connect/Congress & APAP, where you’re spending days with your colleagues hearing lots of great new but now-established names being tossed around, WJF was a chance to catch many of them.

Which artists were you most interested in seeing? 

It’s mostly driven by schedule. Each year consists of sorting out catching this person here, then running to that person there, then that other player back at the first venue, when you’re making out your plans the same days APAP & the Jazz Congress end.

But this year, WJF’s crown jewel, the Weekend Marathon, was days past the end of the new schedules for APAP & the Congress, long after most jazz out-of-towners had gone home. So it lost the immediacy of WJF’s old schedule.

Which of the talks were you most interested in and what did you think about the topics, which ranged from social justice issues to legal realities for artists? 

I saw that they added panels this year. WJF has never been a “panels” event. It’s a performance event. I think they were merely trying to flesh out their new expanded week.

Do you feel the organizers brought together enough of a variety of artists? 

Sure, when it was too late. After the fact, I saw that. But it was what they did with them that was the epic fail.

During the time I had to focus on it, I was supremely disappointed in the roster this year. Looking at the Wknd Marathon schedule this year, I was hard pressed to see any name on there I recognized, let alone wanted to brave the cold to see. The lack of viable name artists was disappointing. However, once I sat and scoured the schedule for the week, I realized what they had done. APAP & Congress both shifted their scheds to the front of the week, from the back end of the week. The old format was APAP conference during the week, with their showcases on the following Sat & Sun. Connect/Congress had been that Thurs / Friday; the WJF Marathon had always been that Friday night & Sat. It all flowed.

But APAP shifted their showcases to the weekend before its conference, Jazz Congress shifted forward then to that Mon & Tuesday to match it, and WJF expanded their fest from the wknd after the Congress to the wknd before APAP/Congress Week, ran events all week long during the others & the Wknd Marathon on the weekend after. WJF then front-loaded their new week-long schedule to try to catch folks in town for the other events. Without any fanfare, they shoved most of their recognizable names into the first weekend, in what they called a Mini-Marathon, to score out-of-towners coming in for the Congress.

Even studying the website, it was difficult to see that shift casually. Glancing at the schedules, what they were doing wasn’t apparent; it appeared they were just expanding, not actually shifting their talent. As WJF had always followed the other events, nothing alerted a fan to a major sea change in their approach — established artists in the first days during the other jazz events, then nearly all unknowns for the Weekend Marathon after the Jazz Community has left town.

If they had marketed that change in a more pronounced manner, folks could have made clearer choices for their viewing and listening. This was especially crucial for me, as I was performing this year at APAP and my focus was to that and the industry folks who were just hitting town for the Congress, then the Congress’s two days. WJF, per normal, was an afterthought. By the time I would normally start to focus on WJF, all those I’d want to see had gone by, unbeknownst to me, leaving me with lots of acts I didn’t know.

What was the biggest surprise? 

Just how badly it continues to be run. Without a doubt, this is America’s Worst-Run Jazz Event. Always has been. That, and that they lost The New School this year. WJF has always been a great idea whose tickets have always been horribly oversold — a number of clubs around the Village, with great music. Truly a joy. However, by overselling tickets so badly, it’s historically run into horribly long lines of folks who’d paid to see these artists stuck outside each of their clubs, forcing folks to make hard choices, such as foregoing one act you want to see to try to get into a later act’s set or else risk being aced out of what you really wanted to see, or being stuck standing in a long line on the sidewalk. In the pouring rain one year. In the freezing cold & wind, the next. In the snow, another year.

Trying to hear some good music at WJF has always been a tripartite battle between your zeal for jazz, the brutal elements, and their zeal for selling more tickets than they could possibly handle. Thankfully, three years ago, they partnered with The New School. For two years, this was an answer to a prayer. New School came in with two large auditoriums — 600-seat and 800-seat spaces — that absorbed all those extra bodies so folks no longer had to brave the elements on the sidewalk, even though the clubs were all still full. Sadly, WJF lost its partnership with New School this year, and the old problems returned, with new ones as well.

Along with the return of the venue lines, the ticketing process itself deteriorated. In previous years, you bought your tickets online, then went to a central location for pick-up — large spaces such as the NYU Law School or Judson Memorial Church — before setting off on your jazz discovery. Last year they added an optional early pick-up system at one club’s box office to alleviate some of the lengthy lines on Marathon Day. They repeated it this year with one caveat — they did away with the central location, without telling anyone or ever spelling that out, or stating what the new Day-Of system would be on the website. Nowhere on their site was this spelled out; I searched. Only the great early pick-up idea! “Get ’em early!” Nothing on what to do on the day of the Marathon if early wasn’t an option.

A Day-Of email to their organizers to track down this info led to a snarling, curt email saying read the website. My reply informed her that I had; another curt response chose to answer just one of the three questions in my original email. My follow-up email repeating my other questions remained unanswered. Turns out the wristband pick-up was now at every venue. So, Saturday I left a Jazz Journalists meeting near Union Square to head to one of the venues I wanted to check out down on Bleecker Street, the Bitter End, only to be told curtly that they were not part of WJF that night (though they’d always been a major venue for WJF and were even in the program. They showed me the tiny fine print — only Friday!) and sent me to another venue where I went only to be denied entry just to get my ticket and leave by a very surly bouncer, who told me to stand on the back of a block-and-a-half long line in the cold, with both “have tickets” and “pick-up tickets” folks.

This is when I severely combed the map for other venues, only to find New School had been replaced by venues very far afield — much further east, and even down to the Lower East Side towards Delancy Street, no one’s idea of the Village. I found one venue I wanted to catch someone at on Bedford St. After more schlepping in the cold, there I got my ticket while I heard one number from the current band playing. Tasty. Didn’t know them; didn’t have time to check them out, as I had to run home to take care of something then race back to catch the one artist I wanted to hear. By this time, I’d been walking all over the Village that evening just to get the ticket I’d already paid for, with one song to show for it.

I got home, warmed up, and sat, exhausted after a week of two performances, other showcases, seeing others’ performances, the Jazz Congress and lots of meetings with industry folks for meals or drinks. I thought, “Do I have the energy to catch anyone else but the person I wanted to hear? No. I don’t know any of these people, and now I don’t care. Am I dying to catch this person? Is it a must-see, worth going back out in the cold? Not really, I just had always wanted to check them out, but it wasn’t ground-stirring. Is it worth running all the way back downtown to fight through the mob, the surly WJF folks, the unpleasant freezing temps, the groups of civilians simply showing up for an event, just to catch them? Uhhh, not really…”

So, I collapsed & never made it back down. So for this year’s WJF, my sum total was: one full-fare ticket for one song. WJF won.


Suggestions for improvement? 

1) Go back to the original format. The attempt at a weeklong event is beyond their capability. The Weekend Marathon, mixing name and newcomer artists, and perhaps a gala event during the week; that they’ve done before. That they can do. It can even be the wknd before APAP and the Congress, but can only be one weekend.

2) Find better web people and marketing people. The website was useless, of value only to insiders who already knew the info. Their staffers clearly thought it was great — but then they knew all the info already. It only put out core info THEY thought was needed. Anything else a ticket-holder might need was immaterial and therefore, non-existent.

3) Find a large venue for central ticket pick-up; barring that, be very explicit on the various ways to procure the wristband you’ve purchased online, both early and day-of. Don’t make people guess or figure it out.

4) Figure your capacity better, including every club and venue, and don’t sell more than twice that aggregate number.

5) Beg New School to come back.

6) Pick a model and stay with it. Mostly, decide if WJF wants to be a great fest where folks run from venue to venue, catching great acts — OR — be a great venue when folks get their tickets, get into one venue, then stay there all night and hear that roster of acts, then go home. Earlier years had been the former. This year was decidedly set up for the latter.

Do you think you will you attend or participate next year?

Not with this set-up. If I can see that it’s been improved structurally, that would be an important step. But as it is, no. I can’t see it being viable.

Other comments?

Not being able to recommend a major jazz event is not a comfortable place to be.

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