Cover Story: Just Jazz

Courtis Fuller helps organize 'non-political' event to fill gap left by cancelled Jazz Festival

May 30, 2002 at 2:06 pm
Mike Wade will be one of the local acts playing a brand-new Jazz and Heritage Festival this summer.

In his mayoral candidacy last November, Courtis Fuller pledged his support to the arts. It was a promise he's proving he intended to keep, especially in the musical category.

After a 40-year stint, the plug was pulled on the Cincinnati Jazz Festival that, in its prime, drew crowds of 35,000 and featured Jazz icons like Ella Fitzgerald, Duke Ellington and John Coltrane. In recent years it had morphed into a R&B event that drew crowds from all over the Midwest.

A long-time Jazz fan and musician himself, Fuller says an East Coast-type of Jazz festival, something akin to ones he's attended in Toronto and Newport, R.I., is something he's always wanted to put together. And he's coordinated the whole thing in a ballpark time of six weeks, starting right before the Cincinnati Jazz Festival announced its cancellation in early April.

Fuller is calling his production the 2002 Jazz and Heritage Festival, a weeklong series of concerts at different venues in various Cincinnati neighborhoods, with the possibility of adding a venue in Covington. Thus far, the festival will feature only local acts and a chance to "honor local musicians" such as Rosemary Clooney and Frank Foster. Exhibits, tributes, discussions and a workshop are part of the blueprint as well.

He wants to involve the community, which has a lot to do with the venues he chose.

"I've always wanted to see a great band, like the Blue Wisp Big Band, in a larger venue than the Blue Wisp Club, but not as big of a place as Cinergy (Field)," he says. "Nothing is better than sitting in a park listening to music by literally one of the greatest Big Bands in the world."

With this in mind, he and Laura Gentry, president of LAG Productions, put together a lineup of bands including the Blue Wisp Big Band, the University of Cincinnati CCM Faculty Jazz Ensemble, Eugene Goss, the Art Gore Quartet, Henry Benefield and Company, the Cohesion Jazz Ensemble, the Mike Wade Sextet, Wilbert Longmire and the Jazz and Heritage All-Star Youth Jazz Band, which will consist of five high school bands performing together under the conducting of St. Xavier band teacher Kevin Engel.

The locations range from areas such as Swifton Commons (in conjunction with the It's Commonly Jazz Series) and Memorial Hall to the Arts Consortium and Ault Park. At the smaller venues, he and Gentry are encouraging residents to arrange their own Jazz ensembles to play on neighborhood corners and have "guided tours" through their town.

As he hopes to see the Jazz and Heritage Festival become an annual event, Fuller says he also hopes to eventually provide some kind of scholarship to an outstanding high school student in the area. And not only does he see it as annual, he "wants this to be a signature event in Cincinnati."

But he says he's not trying to replace the Cincinnati Jazz Festival, which organizers say will return in 2003.

"I loved it (Cincinnati Jazz Festival), but sometimes you need to switch gears," Fuller says. "There are cheaper ways to do it, and now people are starting to flock to smaller venues for concerts. If they bring it back, that'll be great too."

Fuller says his event is rounding out at a cost of $130,000 — with more sponsors still needed — which is nothing compared to the millions of dollars it took each year to produce and promote the Cincinnati Jazz Festival. He hopes the city will chip in on a chunk of the total.

All of the events will be free, except two, for which the tickets will be "reasonably priced," Fuller promises.

All local acts. No downtown venues. Just Jazz. Could Fuller be concocting this event in consideration of the ongoing economic boycott?

Amanda Mayes, spokesperson for the Coalition for a Just Cincinnati, says she doesn't have any problem with the Jazz and Heritage Festival as of yet, supposing Fuller and Gentry don't bring in national musicians.

"It honors the boycott, so we support it," Mayes says.

Fuller maintains the new event isn't about politics.

"While I understand the boycott, this is really just about music," he says. "Not to diminish any of the issues confronting the city or boycott. You can always deal with tough issues and have a good time. If it helps heal the city, that's wonderful, but if I just get people there that love music, that's fine too."

The 2002 Jazz and Heritage Festival will be held July 28-Aug. 4 in various venues around Greater Cincinnati. Call 513-821-0641 for a schedule of acts and venues.