Let's be honest, with an overcrowded spring event calendar that barely breaks long enough to sneeze at the cedar pollen, a new festival in Austin is about as welcome as a double-decker bus full of out-of-state emigrees scrambling to snap up our "affordable" housing. But based on the turnout and the scene at the inaugural Austin Jazz Festival on Sunday, this might be an event that Austin actually needs. Filling a void left vacant since longtime community organizer Harold McMillan stopped programming the Clarksville Jazz and Arts Festival years ago, the day-long event presented a classy program of vocal and instrumental jazz headlined by internationally acclaimed saxophonist Kirk Whalum.
"For a first year event - the festival far exceeded our expectations," festival co-founder Donell Creech said via chat on Tuesday morning. "For me, in comparison to my experience for starting up Urban Music Fest, it took us three years to get to the same level of positive audience feedback and experience. So I'm on fire about our year one experience."
Though the rumor at the box office was that the guest list approached 1000 names, Creech says the festival issued 758 comps, accounting for a good portion of the crowd. Still, Creech says the attendance total was 2,200, an impressive turnout for a first year festival on a holiday weekend at the Backyard, a venue located over 20 miles from the East Austin Music Academy, the festival's beneficiary. It was refreshing to see a diverse crowd show up for an event that eschewed hype, focusing instead on sheer musicianship and instrumental prowess.
By early evening, the seated section of the audience was 60-70 percent full while the general admission area in the back was scattered with blankets. In both sections well-dressed fans – many of whom wore fabulous hats, the prime accessory of this festival – enthusiastically took in the music. Most of the artists, like Whalum, skewed toward the smooth side of the jazz spectrum, but Portland-based saxophonist Jessy J, who played in the early evening, had the crowd on their feet dancing along to her Latin jazz set. As the sun started to dip down, Houston sax man Everett Harp, took the stage, spinning out a swirl of sound that was simultaneously sensuous and technically astounding.
The festival was smoothly run and well-organized with comedian Billy D. Washington working the crowd in between sets to prevent tedious lulls. The most obvious complaints would be predictably high drink prices and long lines for Hoover's home cooking, the only food vendor open at supper time. In any case, it was a solid debut for the festival and on Tuesday Creech was happy to announce that the festival will return next year. The second annual Austin Jazz Fest will take place on Sunday May 24, 2015 at the Backyard.
Creech says his long term vision is to turn the event into a destination festival. "We want to give jazz enthusiasts a reason to come austin every Memorial Day weekend," he said, citing Austin's "glowing reputation" nationally and abroad as a draw.
After attending year one it's easy to get on board. With the festival's core emphasis placed squarely on music, it's an event that everyone who believes in the term "Live Music Capital" should readily embrace.