Did Jazz Sizzle or Fizzle?

Trey Songz fans could hardly contain themselves but for others the 20th anniversary event a big yawn.

Twenty years of Saint Lucia Jazz, was definitely a cause for celebration especially in light of the fact that the event has outlived and outpaced many similar festivals across the Caribbean region. The fact too, that Saint Lucia Jazz from its inception until now, has collectively offered patrons a taste of some of the best musicians in the world, is something to rejoice. Never mind the debate each year about the quality of the line-up, the festival over the years has delivered on a number of great international performers, including some we were fortunate to experience before they passed away. These include Phyllis Hyman Grover Washington Jr, Tito Puente, Gerald Levert, Lou Rawls and Luther Vandross. Among the musical luminaries who have played Saint Lucia Jazz are Herbie Hancock,  Santana, Earth Wind and Fire, Wynton, Elis and Branford Marsalis, Patti Labelle, Chaka Khan, Al Green, Al Jarreau, Ashford and Simpson, Foreplay, Nancy Wilson, Spyro Gyra and George Duke, to name but a few. It must also be noted, that Saint Lucia Jazz has been able to attract a number of celebrities here for the event including basketball legend Kareem Abdul Jabar, tennis superstar Serena Williams and actors Morgan Freeman, Alphonso Ribiero and Leon. And it has also brought in millions of dollars in foreign exchange to the island.
So with so many accolades to its name and given the fact that George Wein, producer of 30 festivals worldwide, ranked St Lucia Jazz among the top three festivals in the world, where was the “umph” behind Saint Lucia Jazz 2011? Was Tomas still to be blamed? Are rising fuel prices or the downturn in the economy and the invisible four percent growth the real dampeners? Or has the event simply come down with a bad case of the common cold and the organizers suffering from fatigue?
The Director of the SLTB, organizers of the festival, says it is time for all views to contend and for a review of the festival to take place. Part of the review and discussion Louis Lewis says has to be whether spending EC$6 million (the budget for the 2011 Jazz Festival) is justified in using the event as a marketing tool, or whether that money can be spent in other creative ways to market the small and medium size properties here. The SLTB Director spoke to the STAR Monday, a day after the curtains came down on Saint Lucia Jazz 2011.
“I think we were quite successful in hosting the 2011 Saint Lucia Jazz Festival. But I think after the 20th year this is definitely a time for review and reflection. I think going into the future we have to take a very different approach to what the Saint Lucia Jazz Festival is to Saint Lucia, what it means to Saint Lucia and when we look at the cost I think we have to ask ourselves is that the best use of those resources,” Lewis said. He went on to point out that the SLTB is essentially a marketing and promotion department and the time
had come to consider the
possibility of having the event handled by an events company while the SLTB continues to focus on marketing and looking at new and innovative ways of bringing people to Saint Lucia.
The dwindling numbers in regional arrivals this year also concerns the director.
“If you notice that the Jazz Festival seems to have been the target for a number of regional countries so Tobago Jazz is positioned close to ours, Barbados is now staging events around this time and targeting acts due to perform at Saint Lucia Jazz. In both cases the impact is keeping visitors at home. I think the festival has achieved one of its first objectives which is addressing the issue of seasonality. Going forward I think we need to become innovative and look at what can be the best use of resources although I will be quick to add that the Jazz Festival has been a very important marketing tool and has served us well,” Lewis continued to explain.
Asked about this year’s gate receipts the director said a final tally had not been done.             “We have a preliminary overall count and we have been able to account for EC$1.4 million and that is very close to what we had done last year, but there are some changes we realized about the Saturday and Sunday events. Sunday had just a little more than last year’s Sunday finale and this Saturday was less than last year’s, so it is a reconciliation that is still taking place.”
Over the past five years, there appears to have been a change in the approach to the line-up, with what would seem to be a dwindling in the number of quality performers which would attract followers from the North American and European markets. That having been said a return of a stage, after moving from the cultural centre, for straight ahead Jazz only, has been a plus. Gaiety on Rodney Bay hosted full houses on Wednesday May 5 and Thursday May 6, with acts like Regina Carter, Ledisi, Alison Marquis, Augustin Jab Duplesis and Sixsun really bringing the house down.
The overall line-up this year, raised questions particularly with the headliner John Legend who was here just a few years ago. Interestingly too, whilst the Caribbean, according to the SLTB accounts for more than half of visitors for Saint Lucia Jazz, there was little buzz in the region about the event. Added to that, two of the performers for Saint Lucia Jazz were appearing on other stages in the Caribbean, pretty close to Jazz time. Trey Songz appeared in Trinidad a week ahead of Saint Lucia Jazz and will be in Tortola at the end of May, while John Legend performed in Barbados this week, just two days after performing here.
Asked about putting a clause in the contracts of these performers for exclusivity, Lewis said it is something that could be done, but it would raise the performance fees, but that was an issue which had to be addressed.
The director also shared the concern about the line-up with this reporter after we pointed out that a high percentage of the Saturday show, maybe more than fifty percent, comprised young Saint Lucians and not the visitors the SLTB were trying to attract. While the R&B singer’s performance was lapped up by his fans, it was below par of the festival standards and not as musical as Legend who closed the event on a high on Sunday May 8.
Morgan Heritage also stole the spotlight on Friday May 6 at a World beat music night which also featured Angelique Kidjo and Carimi. The Reggae family had come together taking a break from their solo projects, to perform exclusively at Saint Lucia Jazz and were magnificent having the most staying power the festival has realized for a closing act, maybe not since Santana.
Aside from that a number of the fringe activities, which gave the Jazz Festival soul and character, fell by the wayside this year, due to rain or sameness. However, there is hope in Labowi Promotions who staged a meaningful Jazz in the south and Jazz on the beach with freshness to it and Jazz on the Pier which merged Jazz and carnival into a wonderful Friday event. Jazz on the square, the mother of the fringe, fell flat this year.
The time is now for a critical review of the festival, with the hope that all views will contend. Reviews have been promised before, but in the past have centered on the same players, clearly sapped of any new ideas. Once it is clearly understood that this festival belongs to Saint Lucia through its taxpayers and not to selfish personalities and the purpose of the way forward is outlined with the involvement of all stakeholders, there may  still be hope for this event. Anything less would be detrimental.

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