Edmonton Journal

Thursday, June 23, 2005

Like good jazzmen, fest organizers show flair for improvisation

Roger Levesque



EDMONTON - If improvisation is the soul of jazz, then the inaugural Yardbird Jazz Festival has inadvertently tapped the essence of the music like nothing else.


When the lights come up on the first of some 60 different jazz events Friday night, it's worth remembering that the plan for this "little festival that could" has only really been improvised over the past 12 weeks. Which makes it all the more incredible that organizers from the Edmonton Jazz Society (owners of the Yardbird Suite club) have managed to pull together such an impressive program of concerts, club gigs and musicians workshops.


It all started after the Edmonton Arts Council rejected a grant application from Jazz City this spring. That festival -- responsible for bringing jazz to local fans for 25 years -- was faced with crippling financial problems that eventually forced a cancellation of this year's planned musical celebration altogether.


Around that time, saxophonist Kent Sangster approached EJS president Jasiek Poznanski to suggest that "somebody else should be crazy enough to jump into the pool," as Sangster joked earlier this week.


The reedman now allows he had no idea of just how far things might go to create a new 10-day music blitz. His basic idea was that the Yardbird could step in to mount an alternative, smaller, leaner festival to keep the music flowing, at least for this year.


"We're not in the festival business," explains Poznanski, "but we felt it was important that someone help this tradition continue after 25 years with the previous festival. I'll admit we were very new and a little naive."


Of course it didn't hurt that the Yardbird has been hosting some of the best local, national and international jazz during the regular season for more than 20 years, or that the EJS already had a volunteer force of some 200 people, along with an admirable record of financial solvency.


The first stage of planning and fund-raising went better than anyone dreamed. In the interests of ensuring that a jazz festival would happen, the Edmonton Arts Council offered their advice on how to put together a budget and kicked in the initial $50,000.


Then the Alberta Foundation for the Arts made the unusual move of giving the EJS its second grant this year, specifically for the festival. Corporate donors were happy to get involved and to give the EJS cut rates while private individuals started coming out of the woodwork to donate dollars and services. Singer Rolanda Lee and her Dixieland Jazz Society underwrote an entire night of music and then some. The festival will also enjoy serious radio, television and print media sponsorships (including The Journal).

"All of a sudden, this whole community came forward and joined us," says Poznanski.

Along the way, the festival added a Downtown Jazz Series, the brainchild of Four Rooms restaurant owner Henry Song and saxophonist Don Berner. Five other downtown eateries agreed to host live jazz during the festival and cross-promote each other's programs.

In the space of a week, the original plan of putting on a $40,000 mini-festival ballooned into a $300,000 event of serious proportions. Perhaps the most significant achievement of this improvised festival is that virtually the entire event has been budgeted to break even -- before one ticket was sold.

Alongside gifted national and local performers, two key New York acts were acquired, largely on the basis of their long relationship with Edmonton fans. Bassist-bandleader Dave Holland happens to rank at the top of the jazz scene as critical and audience acclaim goes, while veteran vocalist Sheila Jordan was glad to help the new festival.

For Poznanski (whose day job is with the Edmonton Public School Board), Sangster and Berner, stage 2 of creating the festival involved many late nights, sorting out logistics and figuring out where to delegate authority. Separate crews were set up for specific tasks and a cellphone service came on board to help them communicate during the festival.

Stage 3, operations, began just days ago as weekly volunteer meetings switched to daily sessions of checking and double-checking all the details. Unforeseen problems were faced and dealt with. For instance, two bands would both require a set of vibes -- rare commodities -- on the opening night. And that all-important commodity, festival T-shirts, were ordered and received --700 of them for volunteers, musicians and souvenir sales.

As the minutes tick down to the opening downbeat of Dave Holland's Quintet in the Citadel's Maclab Theatre on Friday, patrons can appreciate that this unprecedented all-volunteer festival effort was truly put together in the spirit of jazz, spontaneously, but with a heart. Or as Poznanski puts it: "We're just doing it because we love the music."

CREDIT: Bruce Edwards, The Journal

Two key organizers of the inaugural Yardbird Jazz Festival, Don Berner, left, and Kent Sangster, inject a little sax into the proceedings. The fest kicks off Friday.