Pick a cliché. They all work.
“It’s the dawn of an era” for the Telluride Jazz Festival.
The Telluride Jazz Fest is now “marching to the beat of a different drummer.”
Telluride’s jazz festival is “blazing a new trail.”
Last fall, the board of the Telluride Society for Jazz felt it was time for a new direction with respect to its four-decade-old festival. It was decided that the nonprofit group would join forces with Steve Gumble’s SBG Productions, which handles the annual Telluride Blues & Brews Festival, to plan and stage the festival. Blues & Brews is a much larger operation with respect to ticket sales, staff, volunteers, artist bookings, concession stands and the like.
The switch coincided with the retirement of Paul Machado, who had served as executive director of the Telluride Jazz Festival since 1991. An examination of festivals in recent years showed that while the local festival was not lacking in musical talent, the audience size was, to say the least, underwhelming. The festival has a permit from the town allowing up to 3,000 patrons per day, but the average crowds were about half of the maximum.
Peter Bell, whose Washington, D.C.-based communications firm Dworbell Inc. has been a festival sponsor for 19 years, now serves as the new festival director. He also is a former board member.
In an interview last week, Bell explained how the changes came about.
“I stepped in on a voluntary basis to be executive director,” Bell said. “We knew that SBG had longtime, full-time employees that really focused on producing festivals and had a lot of success in building and marketing the Blues & Brews festivals over the years.
“Our part-timers — who made a very noble effort and worked very hard but didn’t have it as a full-time job — weren’t achieving the results that the team SBG was achieving with Blues & Brews.”
Bell said the difference in size and success between the two festivals hasn’t been by design.
“We’re not a small audience by choice,” he said. “We’ve been achieving roughly 1,500 people a day, and we’re allowed to have up to 3,000. We have a lot of room to grow under the current authority provided by the town, and certainly if we were successful, I would hope the town would allow us to grow from there.”
Bell suggested that the festival already benefits from a strong, loyal, core audience. Every year — the event is held during monsoon season — it tends to rain on one or all of the festival days.
Last year, the festival grounds had to be evacuated on Sunday of Jazz Fest weekend because of supposed lightning nearby, cutting short a performance by Rebirth Brass Band and sending music-lovers running for cover.
Bell calls what is presented every year “adventure jazz.” The hardcore fans show up with umbrellas and other weather-related gear, and they enjoy the music, come what may.
“I run into a lot of the artists throughout the year, at different jazz venues and festivals, and a lot of them say, ‘Boy, that Telluride audience. It was raining cats and dogs, and they wouldn’t give up. They come out prepared, and they hang out with you.’ The artists love playing that stage.”
As producer of Blues & Brews, SBG’s Gumble is used to working with a much bigger budget. Blues & Brews, which is held in mid-September, is permitted for 9,000 people per day.
He says he can grow the Jazz Fest, but it’s going to take some time. Perhaps next year the difference in ticket sales, and corresponding crowd sizes, will be noticeable. This year, the pace of ticket sales is ahead of last year, but whether that will translate into a larger audience overall remains to be seen.
“I’m used to working with more people,” he said. To put things into perspective, he likened the situation to “three people doing the work of six.” In actuality, the Jazz Fest crew consists of about 25 people and 100 volunteers — less than one-third of his Blues & Brews manpower.
“We have such a solid crew that works for us on Blues & Brews, and they see the potential in Jazz Fest,” he said. “We’re really fortunate that we have such a great crew. Everyone is chipping in to make it successful. They know that someday, it can be a very popular event. So we’re lucky.”
He can’t afford to hire everyone he uses at Blues & Brews, so he’s relying on “key guys in almost every department” — from box office personnel to park operations to stage and sound crews.
To build the event, Gumble said he’s employed a different style of booking talent. The festival needs bigger names to go along with up-and-coming performers.
To that end, this year’s headliners include 78-year-old Mavis Staples, formerly of the great soul-and-gospel family band The Staple Singers; and Macy Gray, 49, a Grammy-winning R&B singer and songwriter who fits a more contemporary category than Staples.
The spring announcement of the artists booked for Telluride Jazz Festival included Bootsy Collins, who’s considered one of the best bass guitarists in the world within the funk genre. But Collins had to back out because of health issues, leaving Gumble to scramble for another big name with broad appeal.
As he put it, “It didn’t take too long to find what I needed.”
Instead of one act, Gumble found two to fill the Saturday night spot vacated by Collins: The Funky Meters, an offshoot of the groundbreaking funk band The Meters, will share the slot with the legendary New Orleans pianist Dr. John.
The Funky Meters are popular with jazz, funk and jam-band audiences alike. They are led by B-3 organ master Art Neville (“Poppa Funk”) of the famous Neville Brothers family band, along with bassist George Porter Jr. (Neville and Porter are founding members of The Meters.) Brian Stoltz, the original Funky Meters guitarist, also will be making the trip, accompanied by Terrence Houston on drums. Houston joined the band three years ago, replacing original member Russell Batiste Jr.
The Meters are known worldwide for many original compositions such as “People Say,” “Just Kissed My Baby,” “Fire on the Bayou,” “Ain’t No Use” and many more. The Funky Meters tend to stick to The Meters catalogue, but are liable to mix things up given the right vibe.
Dr. John (real name is Mac Rebennack), whose rollicking piano style made him a busy session player in the 1950s and 1960s, incorporates a Louisiana voodoo theme in much of his music. He’s won six Grammy Awards and recorded more than 20 albums, scoring a Top 20 hit in 1973 with “Right Place Wrong Time.” Other Dr. John favorites include “Such a Night,” “Mama Roux” and “Gris Gris Gumbo Ya Ya.”
Just what will happen when The Funky Meters and Dr. John share the stage is anybody’s guess. They’ve played together before — various members of The Funky Meters have worked with “Mac” — but not that often.
“I’m looking forward to being back in Telluride with the Funky Meters and having our brother, Dr. John, playing with us,” says Neville, 79. “We’re gonna do what we do. We’re a little older, but a lot funkier, (and) having ‘Mac’ sittin’ in with us takes it to another place altogether.”
Will it be a Funky Meters show or a Dr. John show? Neville wasn’t sure.
“George (Porter Jr.) is great about bringing us the ideas in a set list and adding some things we may not have thought about. So, we have a solid roadmap of our set. Once we kick it off on stage, we let the jams go where they want to go and need to go.”
FOCUS ON VARIETY
While Staples, Gray and the Dr. John/Funky Meters are heavyweights in the festival music world, both Gumble and Bell speak volumes of the other acts that are coming to town.
There’s variety at this year’s festival — many artists that aren’t directly associated with the traditional jazz, funk or R&B genres. Bell and Gumble attended a music showcase in New York in January where they saw, or caught wind of, up-and-comers such as Ranky Tanky, a band that has roots in the Gullah culture, which consists of descendants of former African slaves who were brought to the South Carolina coast.
“Ranky Tanky blew the crowd away” at the conference, Bell recalled.
The band blends traditional jazz with other forms of music, including gospel and reggae. And, true to the Gullah tradition, Ranky Tanky has an African vibe, Gumble said.
Ranky Tanky made the Telluride Jazz Fest bill, as did FatsO, an eclectic swing band based in South America that Gumble discovered when he was “goofing around” on YouTube. Gumble was compelled to research FatsO as there was a buzz about the band among other jazz festival promoters around the country.
“There’s something for everyone this year, from top to bottom,” Gumble concluded, pointing out not only the diversity of the musical offerings at the festival grounds, but also the free shows at Elks Park and the Jazz After Dark performances at venues around town.
The festival also provides different experiences for music lovers through different ticket levels that have a variety of amenities. The “Patron Experience” allows music fans to watch the action on the stage and mingle with the artists (should they so desire); on another level, the “VIP Experience” provides an open bar and a special seating area in front of the stage.
Then there are general admission tickets, which are priced considerably lower than the typical Telluride Town Park music festival.
“Everyone’s excited we’re at the helm now,” Gumble concluded.
“The talent has always been good, but this year, we’re gonna knock the socks off you,” Bell added.
For more information about the festival, including tickets and pricing, visit telluridejazz.org.