Wednesday, May 20, 2009

"New York Loses Its Jazz Festival" - NY Times

And here's the second one. However, we had anticipated this matter here sometime ago, on April 27:
Anyway, the NYT article follows:

New York Loses Its Jazz Festival
By Ben Sisario
For the first time in 37 years, there will be no major summer jazz festival in New York.

Around this time of year, posters for the JVC Jazz Festival would be appearing on the streets of New York, and jazz tourists would be finalizing plans to arrive in the middle of June for two weeks of bragworthy shows.

But for the first time in 37 years, there will be no major summer jazz festival in New York. Nor will there be related series in Miami or Chicago, as the concert company behind them is suffering a financial crisis.

At stake is one of the most celebrated legacies in American music. Two years ago the impresario George Wein sold his company, Festival Productions, to a group led by Chris Shields, a charismatic entrepreneur who planned to transform Mr. Wein’s empire through aggressive growth. Now that plan has all but collapsed, as Mr. Shields’s company, Festival Network, has lost its top sponsor, as well as several signature festivals, delivering what many call a painful blow to jazz.

In an interview Mr. Shields, 38, largely blamed the economy for his company’s woes. “I’ll certainly take criticism for the robust growth plan,” he said. “It may have been too robust for the time. I think if we weren’t faced with this economy, we would have been just fine.”

But business associates and former employees, many of whom would not comment publicly because the company still owes them money, say that Festival Network overspent on booking talent and took unnecessary risks, including opening four new festivals last summer without securing sufficient sponsorship.

“He was ambitious but perhaps overwhelmed with the realities of the New York market,” said Michael Dorf, who runs City Winery and hired Mr. Shields for the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in 2000. “There’s something that comes from cutting your teeth working day in and day out in New York concert promotion. I don’t think Chris had that experience level.”

Last year Festival Network presented 17 festivals around the world, but Mr. Shields said he has none to announce this year. The company lost its contract for the Newport jazz and folk festivals in Rhode Island because of late payments for use of state parkland. The Freihofer’s Jazz Festival in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., another longtime Wein event, has gone to a competitor, and last month JVC said that after 24 years with Mr. Wein, it would no longer be sponsoring jazz.

Festival Network’s troubles, however, reach farther than Newport. In Mali, the Festival in the Desert — a renowned world-music event each January in the remote sands beyond Timbuktu — was almost canceled this year after beginning an association with Festival Network.

Manny Ansar, the Malian founder of the Festival in the Desert, said the agreement, finalized at Newport last summer, called for Festival Network to provide a range of assistance, including enough money to produce this year’s event. According to Mr. Ansar’s American lawyer, Thomas Rome, that amount exceeded $600,000.

But communication broke down, and most of that money never came, Mr. Ansar said. The festival went on, he added, with financing from the governments of Mali, Morocco and Burkina Faso. Mr. Ansar spoke in French in a telephone interview that was translated by Mr. Rome.

Mr. Shields said that his company had invested $150,000 in the Festival in the Desert, but denied that Festival Network had agreed to finance it fully. (Mr. Ansar, for his part, said he believed the agreements were made in good faith, and he has not filed a lawsuit for the money. “In my culture,” he said, “one doesn’t abandon a friend because he’s in trouble.”)

Mr. Shields, whose own tastes lean more to folk than to jazz, had a modest profile in music before taking over Mr. Wein’s company. After graduating from Columbia in 1993, he worked briefly for Mr. Wein, and in 1998 he developed a festival on Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. In 2000 he worked under Mr. Dorf as a director of the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals in New York, Boston, Philadelphia and Washington.

But for the Festival Productions deal, he had major financial backers, including Richard Sands, the chairman and chief executive of Constellation Brands, the beer and wine conglomerate. Festival Productions was purchased for about $4 million, according to both Mr. Wein and Mr. Shields, and Festival Network announced plans to build a portfolio of world-class festivals by presenting “destination” events in prime locations.

“The goal of the company,” Mr. Shields said, “was to create enough original and desired location-based festivals that the Fortune 500s of the world would look at that umbrella of festivals and say, ‘We want to come in and sponsor the entire body.’ ”

Acquiring Festival Productions was a coup for the young company. Mr. Wein, 83, enjoys a singular reputation as the patriarch of the American festival, and he had a history of rebuffing previous offers. In an interview he said the deal with Festival Network came along at the right time. “I was at a point in my life where I was cashing in,” he said.

Mr. Wein stayed on as producer emeritus. Ben Ratliff of The New York Times praised the lineup of the 2008 JVC festival in New York, calling it “undiminished and newly energized by welcome changes of locations and some imaginative bookings.”

By last summer, though, the company was feeling a financial pinch. Mr. Shields said that sponsorship had fallen short of expectations; new festivals in Jackson Hole, Wyo.; Whistler, British Columbia; and San Francisco lacked major sponsors and had weak attendance. Mr. Shields says he stopped paying himself a salary in September, as the market crashed, and by December he stopped paying staff members. At its peak the company had 37 employees, but now is down to 6.

After the company lost the Newport contracts, Mr. Wein announced that he would be presenting folk and jazz festivals there in August under his own name. (A spokeswoman for the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management, which administers the state parks, said Festival Network had paid its outstanding debts.)

The disappearance of several former JVC festivals, particularly in New York, have deprived many musicians of some of their most lucrative engagements this summer. But more important, many in the jazz world say, their loss sends a misleading signal about the health of the music.

“Losing a major jazz festival kind of tells the world that maybe this music isn’t marketable,” said Joel Chriss, a booking agent whose roster includes Randy Brecker and Freddy Cole. “It’s potentially dangerous.”

Mr. Shields says the story is not over. He wants to present a New York jazz festival next year. Although his company has been battered, he says its underlying model is sound. “This business plan can succeed, absolutely,” he said. “You’ve seen it succeed in the promotions business, you’ve seen it happen in sports, you’ve seen it happen in management. We by no means have given up.”

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