The Titan Jazz & Art Festival: A Model for Others

January 12, 2017

by Brian Rollins

In Part II of this feature, we pick up Brian Rollins’ in-depth look at the Titan Jazz & Arts Festival, wherein he outlines the details that go into putting on a successful endeavor of this sort…

Atmosphere

To create our relaxed atmosphere for the festival, we made a number of important decisions. The first of these is that bands do not audition to participate: it’s first-come, first-served. So far this has worked fine. Some groups come almost every year; others take a year or two off. And a dialogue with our directors led to a plan that when we’ve occasionally had more requests than available spots, we invoke a rotation system so that a group that attends one year might sit out one of the following two or three years.

Directors bring their ensembles back for a number of reasons. John McAlister directs the band at The Steward School. “I appreciate the acceptance of my unique instrumentation, the first and foremost focus on jazz education, and the festive and professionally run outdoor performance venue,” he says. “As I listen to the other groups perform throughout the day, I often take notes as to which tunes the other directors have chosen for their ensembles. Two of the six tunes I played at the festival one year I’d heard performed by other groups the previous year. I also enjoy the camaraderie with the other jazz educators and working with the terrific people at Trinity.”

Mike Boyd of The Collegiate School agrees: “The main aspect that has encouraged our participation is the sense of community we have with all of the other bands. This atmosphere does not feel competitive; we all support one another and enjoy the day for what it is: great music played by great musicians. I wouldn’t have it any other way. The clinic is another big factor, as the information given there is so helpful.”

Karl von Klein directs music at Maggie L. Walker Governor’s School: “We appreciate the substantial time with a professional clinician, the pro sound and recording on the main stage, a performance by a professional jazz ensemble during the day, the opportunity for students and directors to hear and connect with other local jazz bands, the fine lunch, and the expense: $0!”

Jenny Ryan, director at Monacan High School, echoes that: “Is it cheap of me to say that we appreciate not having to pay a fee and yet get fed, to boot? The opportunity to play for Tony and get immediate feedback that includes demonstration from him and experimentation/correction with the kids is awesome. We also love the setting and the chance to hear other groups. It’s a great atmosphere.”

Clinician Antonio García workshops a participating band at the Titan Fest

Having Mr. García annually reprise his role as clinician greatly enhances the event’s easy-going feel. He’s well known to all of the directors, and the returning participants in particular find his presence reassuring. His clinics are not adjudicated: he provides only written and verbal supportive comments. Says Ryan, “Style is always a challenge for us; and Tony does a great job explaining it, demonstrating it, and helping my kids to make little changes that make big differences.” Boyd echoes this. “Tony is the best at working with this age group. He is clear, articulate, funny, and extremely knowledgeable, which translates well on all levels to the students. He has done such a masterful job over the years in giving advice that is immediately applicable to the band. He has worked with the drummer(s) on the style of playing the ride cymbal in swing, how to play the backbeat on the snare in a funk tune, the tone of the horn-players in a traditional New Orleans song, how to correctly hold a microphone as a vocalist, how to swing as an ensemble, and more. All of this advice gets immediately taken from the workshop to the stage later that afternoon. The students don’t forget these tips, either: they stick with the band in the following years. As a director, it is always great to hear what Tony comments upon; I learn as much as the students.”

McAlister notes, “at a typical festival, some judge on a recording may or may not tell you how to improve your playing; and there is no one-on-one connection with that judge. My students simply step up their game when they play for Trinity’s clinician, who has focused on the importance and the interpretation or phrasing of the groove for every member of the ensemble and not just the rhythm section. I also appreciate helpful hints as well as words of encouragement for all of my soloists. The students always comment on the unique and impassioned way the clinician presents information about jazz.” Says von Klein, “I always emerge feeling like a more informed, capable jazz teacher. And the band always sounds better!”

The directors provide a stage plot for the stage crew and an ensemble bio for the emcee. As host, I provide all equipment for both the clinic and main-stage settings: chairs, music stands, drum set, digital piano, vibraphone, congas, bass and guitar amplifiers, and mics and PA for singers and soloists. Players can bring their own mobile equipment if desired (cymbals for drummers, amps for bassists/guitarists); but having common equipment such as one drum set in each setting greatly helps the transitions flow smoothly between groups.

A large tent provides a great environment for the public performances.

In the clinic room PA use is limited primarily to vocalists. For the public stage we contract a professional sound team to equip and run sound and lights. This not only simplifies the event for the host school but it’s an especially appreciated touch for the high school groups to perform on a professionally prepped stage with an ample amount of mics, monitors, and a dedicated engineer controlling the mix. If the main stage’s location is too far away from sufficient power, rent a low-noise generator, readily available from many power-equipment rental firms.

Since our main stage is outdoors, it’s housed underneath a 40’ x 80’ tent. We found out rather quickly that there is substantially more to establishing the outdoor venue than merely renting a tent and building a stage. Many municipalities require a permit and inspection for outdoor structures over a given size, as was the case for both our tent and stage. There may also be provisions in the local code that must be addressed, potentially providing a site-plan drawing, fire extinguishers, lighted exit signs, and more.

Our school arts boosters group has been a tremendous help in staffing this event, including the advance marketing efforts and the day-of directions to participants and audience members on site.

We feed all the participating groups. We provide boxed meals for the earlier groups that arrive prior to our concession area being open; the later ensembles receive meal vouchers redeemable at the concessions area. Water is available at both areas for all musicians and staff.

The Bill

I’m sure that some readers will have questions regarding the cost of running a festival such as this. This event arose in part because our school – at the behest of then-headmaster Dr. Tom Aycock – wished to develop a “signature” event. Many schools already undertake something along these lines, very commonly athletic competitions such as tournaments. In some of these events the costs are substantially or even completely underwritten.

In our case, Dr. Aycock and I set up the event so that it would be free to all participants and viewers. But certainly a festival could be similarly constructed with some participation fees contributing towards the host school’s primary costs. As a guideline, I’d suggest looking at the fees charged for participating in traditional adjudicated festivals.

Audience

Perhaps the most enduring challenge of our festival has been building an audience. After the first festival our soundman had said it would be at least five years before we could reasonably expect to build some momentum in attendance; my observations since back his statement.

Note that TV advertising may not be viable, as the cost for buying a commercial spot turned out to be prohibitive. And because our event is predominantly high school-based, our local TV stations have declined to air any festival promo-spots, preferring to avoid favoritism (though they regularly show weekly sports highlights from various schools). However, our school has been very active in marketing:

  • Posting the event on numerous community web calendars.
  • Advertising in metropolitan and community newspapers.
  • Sending flyers in both electronic and hard-copy form to the participating schools.
  • Posting flyers in local music stores and universities.
  • Conducting interviews for local radio.
  • Appearing at surrounding neighborhood community meetings.
  • Contacting some local celebrities to serve as honorary event chairs and make an appearance to offer some remarks.
  • Including several school sports events during the festival, scheduled during the earlier part of the day.
  • Presenting art demonstrations by faculty and students within an “open studio” environment.
  • Moving the main stage so that it’s in a central location to all of these activities.

And because VCU’s high school all-star ensemble, the VCU Greater Richmond High School Jazz Band, performs, Mr. García regularly promotes the Titan Festival over the preceding several months, both in printed programs distributed at VCU Jazz concerts and via his VCU Jazz E-Newsletter, which is sent to some 2000 e-addresses monthly.

The move of the main stage in 2014 to a more central location on our grounds was particularly impactful in increasing our crowd. That said, the most effective vehicle for marketing and building the audience has been word-of-mouth from the participating directors, the other musicians, and the attendees. The net effect of these efforts is that we’ve seen the festival audience gradually increase over time.

Outcomes

Mr. McAlister noticed “at many festivals, students play in an empty school in an auditorium with a few of the performers’ parents and a couple of judges present. At Trinity, students perform in an outdoor tent filled with parents, teachers, and students from throughout the Richmond community – and that after a confidence-booster from the clinician.” Mr. Boyd agrees: “The most beneficial aspect of the festival to our group is the opportunity to play in front of a different crowd that is not from our school. This initially creates a little more anxiousness in the students; but the audience is extremely supportive every time, and that really helps the band settle down and play with energy and focus. Then it becomes a huge success for my band’s confidence.”

From my personal viewpoint and that of the jazz program, our hosting and participating in this event has yielded tremendous benefits. As is the case for several of the other directors, the festival is our jazz ensemble’s focal event for the year; and the students enjoy their role as the host school. There is a positive expectation of us to play our very best – to “represent,” as the kids say. I’ve never found this to be an excessive or negative factor. My students and I both find it very invigorating to listen to and interact with the other school ensembles. In contrast to the competitive nature that often underlies school associations, the atmosphere at the festival is definitely one of cooperation and mutual support. We all root for each other. On several occasions, I’ve seen members from one ensemble step in and perform with another group that was short a few players.

It’s of course always refreshing to have the opportunity to collaborate with great colleagues. Several directors that come to the festival are outside of our school music district; so this gives me a singular opportunity to work with them on a regular basis. Closer to us, one of my cohorts, Mike Boyd, has expanded his school’s annual jazz concert by inviting Trinity and the Steward School (two regular participants in the Titan Festival) to perform on Collegiate’s program, including a final collaborative number. He acknowledges that in part he developed this as an offshoot of taking part in our festival.

My favorite time of the day is our clinic with Mr. García. I know we will receive valuable insight; and experience has taught me that even when my group plays less than their capability, he’ll focus on the positives and encouragingly inspire us in our efforts to improve. That goes for the weather, too. After nine years of incredibly good weather on festival day, our tenth edition ran afoul of outright gloomy weather. It would have been understandable if the energy level of the entire festival fell. But the mood throughout the day was always upbeat, and a lot of that came from the positive energy that was first created in the clinics. What more could you ask for?

Says Mr. McAlister, “The most beneficial aspect of the Titan Festival is that each of our students are aware that they are at this event to learn more about playing jazz, get better at making music, and perform for an appreciative jazz audience.” Mr. Boyd summarizes that “music is always a great way to bring communities together. And for some of these young men and women, it is the only time they are not seeing the other students in a competitive situation. Music brings people together, and I think they learn this after having been to the festival each time. They have come to respect and enjoy the other groups that they hear from our neighboring schools and have formed friendships with those students.” Mr. von Klein describes “my students who’ve participated before look forward to it. Those new to the experience are excited based on the veterans’ descriptions. Afterwards, they acknowledge they learned something and had a fun day of jazz.” Ms. Ryan says the same: “The kids who have done it before tell the new ones how great it’s going to be. Afterwards, they tell me that they really enjoyed the clinic and the main-stage performances.”

Tony García observes a number of outcomes from the Titan Festival. “It’s a privilege to build on the annual trust that the area directors place in me to provide their students the best educational experience I possibly can. Any director could certainly be possessive about preserving all of the conceptual approaches neatly in place when the band arrives at the start of the clinic. What director wouldn’t have some level of concern that the incoming clinician might rock the boat so much as to destabilize the band for its performance, scheduled for just a few minutes later?

“Instead, the participating directors encourage their students to be just as open-minded about learning new approaches as they are — and to be just as flexible in interpretation as a professional musician has to be. And I tell the students that often I’m aiming for the very same intent as their director is; I’m just using a different approach — or amplifying the same approach!

“Most importantly, when I occasionally step out of the clinic room and hear a few minutes of one of the school bands under the tent, I can clearly hear the students confidently performing with the new insights we’d explored less than a half hour earlier. This is a testament to the directors and to the Festival organizers, who had the foresight to create the only event I know in which the clinician assists the jazz bands before they perform in public.

“Once the tent-performance is done, those new concepts tend to be much more firmly in place than if the band had simply packed up its instruments after a clinic. The students have experienced the instant benefit of the insights applied; and the directors tell me that they find it fairly easy, once back in their own bandroom, to have students apply those approaches to other tunes in similar styles.”

I believe that the Titan Jazz & Art Festival has become a considerable asset to my school and to the greater jazz community in our area. We always approach it with great anticipation and feel energized by our participation. Perhaps these thoughts will assist you in growing the same yet further in your region.

Brian Rollins received his Bachelor of Science degree from Elon University and Masters from the University of South Carolina. An NAfME member, he has taught music at Trinity Episcopal School since 1998, where the bands have been featured performers at multiple Virginia Association of Independent Schools conferences and participate actively in Virginia District 1 and All-State events.

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