Montclair Jazz Festival: from grass to stage in just 10 years
Montclair Jazz Festival
Saturday, Aug. 10
Nishuane Park/Cedar Avenue
Rain or shine
Extreme weather: relocated to the Wellmont Theater, 5 Seymour St., check website for updates
By MARK S. PORTER
For Montclair Local
Seated or standing, two dozen staffers gathered around a conference table as Melissa Walker detailed the myriad tasks that needed to be addressed before the Montclair Jazz Festival resounds in Nishuane Park this Saturday.
Walker, the founder of Montclair-based Jazz House Kids in 2002 and the president of the Montclair Jazz Festival since it began nine years ago, methodically check-listed the responsibilities and chores necessary to make the festival operate with maximum fun and finesse.
After all, Walker estimated, at least 10,000 attendees and potentially many more are expected to pack Nishuane Park’s western portion, where a large stage with lights and banks of speakers have been rigged. The show will be live-streamed on the web.
Holding an array of notes, Walker sought confirmations of connections made with Montclair’s municipal government, the Montclair Police and Fire departments, the Montclair Ambulance Unit, Montclair Film, and venues including the DLV Lounge, Montclair Brewery and the Montclair Social Club. She also checked that sufficient quantities of water and other necessities would be available for performers in the nine-hour fete that begins at noon.
She requested assurance that performance protocols were in place detailing the numerous professional jazz players, the lineups of student musicians from the Jazz House Kids facility and their parents, the T-shirts adorned with the artwork of Andres Chaparro, who’s been creating the MJF visuals since 2014.
Employees calmly acknowledged that they were readying these tasks to ensure the festival’s success.
The sound gear, the publicity fliers, the banners that hang on utility poles along Bloomfield Avenue, the assortment of food trucks, the informational booths, the supply of festival T-shirts ...
“It reflects what we want to instill that you have to be really prepared,” Walker said. “The great artists, they worked at their craft. The more you sweat the details, the more you’re ready for the big stage.”
THE FESTIVAL’S GRASSY ROOTS
The Montclair Jazz Festival began in 2010 on a little stage.
Students performed atop a small hilly stage in Nishuane Park. This show was the musical finale to the Jazz House Kids' Summer Workshop, enabling students to demonstrate their jazz aptitude in a public performance. The Montclair Jazz Festival program describes that first year as “a family affair.” Most attendees were family members and friends there to hear the young people demonstrate their chops.
“When we started, we were in the grass, 300 people sitting in the grass of a little knoll in Nishuane Park. We had an electric piano. Now we have a Steinway,” Walker said. “The festival started as the culminating event of the summer workshop. We just went to the park and started to play. Families brought their lawn chairs and picnic baskets,” Walker said. “Next year, we were still on the grass. We still had an electric piano. But we had about 1,200 people. The third year, we got a professional stage and an emcee. The level of professionalism, of the production value, was there.
“It looked like a festival. It felt like a festival.”
“The growth is pretty astounding,” said Ted Chubb, trumpet player and managing director of the Jazz House Kids Summer Workshop.
In 2011, the festival enlisted jazz pianist Monty Alexander, a friend of the Jazz House Kids’ Artistic Chair Christian McBride, as its headliner.
Two years after the festival began, they erected a professional stage, and WBGO Jazz 83.3 FM host Gary Walker became the emcee. Walker still emcees, and for five years has shared those duties with Emmy Award-winning actor S. Epatha Merkerson (“Law & Order,” “Chicago P.D.”).
While the music onstage could be described as cool jazz or hot, the actual weather itself has also been a festival presence. Three years ago, the festival took place on the hottest day of 2016. Last year, New Jersey declared a state of emergency due to a tempestuous rain. Organizers hurriedly relocated musicians to an indoor venue for invited guests, so that the festival kids would have the opportunity to perform.
This year, Walker has an emergency plan in place: the festival itself is rain or shine, but if there’s going to be a flood or extreme heat, they will relocate to the Wellmont, and send an announcement the day before.
The summer camp has evolved as well. Today, 125 students study at the John J. Cali School of Music at Montclair State University, and will play at the Jazz Festival. Saturday’s event is called the Grand Finale, not only to reflect the festival’s 16 days of events but also for the students’ coda.
For the students, Chubb said, the festival concert is “that empowering experience of being treated as an artist.”
This Saturday afternoon, young people will perform in several presentations, such as the Chica Power All-Stars (a program for girls), solo singers, a student jam, and in the Jazz House Alumni combo. Their instructors, all professional musicians, will play in the Jazz House Collective.
Five years into the festival, Montclair residents Bob and Rhonda Silver, through their foundation and their company, the Bravitas Group, contributed enough funding to ensure the festival would be free.
“We had this tagline of ‘No tickets required,’” said Bob Silver.
The festival encourages individual and business donations, as reflected in the impressive number of donors advertising in the Festival's handbook distributed throughout Montclair, but there’s never been a charge to sit on the lawn and enjoy the event.
The festival’s logistics have expanded to include a bus shuttle and a bike valet to encourage attendees to pedal to the event.
The city and community support has been powerful, Chubb said. “That’s super-important to pull off an event this big.”
And the combination fulfills the mission, which was to be community leaders and global citizens, Walker said. “We want to bring communities together.
“It was so fulfilling, building it brick by brick, with the primary focus on young people, an intergenerational community, and seeing it move forward. It is the art of doing, in how you get better.”