Tag Archives: Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues

THE WORD ON WANG FROM THE BOARD

Miriam Zolin

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues

Q&A

Miriam Zolin, board chair, Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, responds to some questions about the future of this much-loved festival, which has been postponed by a year until 2020 for a “total re-think”:

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle you were quoted as saying it would have been “a huge risk” to go ahead with the festival this year. Clearly the board felt it would be a greater risk than to defer for one year, with all the implications for local businesses and for breaking the continuity of this event. What had changed that made it riskier to go ahead than to defer?

MZ: It wasn’t so much that anything huge had changed, just that we were able to see things that we hadn’t seen before. Prior to our festival managers resigning there was fairly limited transparency to how the festival was run. Boards have a responsibility to make sure they know what’s going on. They have responsibility for their sponsor and donor relationships, for the wellbeing of their volunteers and for strong, healthy community linkages. More than anything, Boards have serious fiscal responsibility right down to the line items on a budget. This is because Directors (Board members) are individually carrying risk and can be held liable if they’re not making it their business to be informed about the organisation’s workings. I joined the Board in April last year along with a couple of other people and we could see that there were lots of questions that needed answering, and the answers were not very forthcoming. The previous Board had either not been asking the questions, or had been asking and not getting answers. There were issues right down to artist contracts and our constitution, which contradicts itself in a couple of places.

Those of us who were new to the Board were good at asking questions. Maybe that’s one of the reasons our festival managers resigned! It was probably quite annoying.

Once we had delivered the 2018 festival we knew we needed to hire a new festival manager but we needed to fix up those issues we’d uncovered first, or at least know what they were so we could get a new event manager to fix them. It would have been irresponsible of us not to address the multiple issues. As we started to understand the complexities, we also had a couple of Board members resign, so we were doing it all with a smaller team. We were committed to doing it but there just wasn’t capacity to do it concurrently with the work that had to be done for a 2019 festival.

Ausjazz: Also in that Wangaratta Chronicle article you said that the resignation of Adam Simmons from the festival’s artistic team was a tipping point for the board. Frank Davidson also announced he has retired from his role as co-artistic director. Do these departures signal a significant falling out between the board and its artistic directors?

MZ: Adam’s departure was a tipping point mainly because there was no way we could have programmed a festival that celebrated the 30th adequately in the time remaining to us. Adam worked incredibly hard during his time on the artistic team. He believed in the festival’s potential and really busted a gut to get the most out of the artistic budget and help coordinate a great program. For us to be able to proceed, programming would have needed to be well under way by the date of his departure. However the uncertainty that we’d been dealing with for the previous months meant that he had been unable to commit to a number of key artists. Also with his departure we would have had to recruit a new team member and work at a pace that our depleted Board simply could not have stomached. Honestly, no matter what decision we made at this point there would have been too much work to do, but this way, at the end of that hard work there is a greater chance of a future for the festival.

I know that Adam has spoken publicly on Facebook and elsewhere  about a difference of opinion that you mention below. I think I missed that. We’d told Adam that we had the same budget in 2019 for the program as we did in 2018, and that we were going to make some changes to how things were managed. The Board had agreed, based on our own observations and input from other individuals that far too much of an admin burden had been unfairly placed on the artistic team. We had also told Adam that we wanted the Event Manager – and until they were hired, the Board – to have an overview of all the funding being applied for. Again, it was about transparency and making sure the right processes were in place, with appropriate roles and responsibilities.

We have to remember that Adam was a member of a team so any programming vision was not just Adam’s; it was a shared vision, but I haven’t had any sense of a difference of opinion from other members of the team. Zoe Hauptmann’s contribution to the programming was huge, as was Frank’s dedication to the Blues. And I can’t speak highly enough of local musician and teacher Scott Solimo. He has been involved in the festival for years and in 2017 and 2018 was responsible for programming the community stage, and helped source staging, backline, sound, lighting… not to mention the strong local connections. What a star. Frank’s decision to resign had no relationship to Adam’s decision – though the timing made them seem connected. Frank had always been very clear that 2019 would be his last year. He is enjoying retirement, and being able to focus on his community radio gig and enjoy the surf where he lives. He had committed to three years of programming at Wangaratta. When we told him about our decision, he made the call to hang up his hat.

Ausjazz: Adam Simmons says the festival has a strong future, yet he has stated publically that he stepped down due to “a difference of opinion about the best way to try and achieve the same goal of moving the festival forward”. Can you elaborate on how Simmons’ vision differed from what the board wanted?

MZ: Again, I can’t speak for Adam. I’ve always held him in high esteem and I know that he had a vision that he would have liked to bring about over a number of years.

I’ve not been able to unpack exactly where Adam feels the disconnect between his vision and the Board’s arose. Last time we spoke about it I think I began to understand the extent of his hopes and dreams for the festival, and that’s a great thing to have in a co-artistic director. One thing we did say to him was that we wanted the 30th to celebrate the legacy of the festival as influencer and shaper of Australian jazz. We felt the idea of looking backwards so we can move forward was an important message for this 30 year milestone. He’s never said that this direction from the Board impinged on his vision, and I hope he would have said if it was an issue. It’s the only thing I can think of.

Ausjazz: You mentioned that last year’s festival was well acclaimed and a fantastic board had been in place. If there was not “a problem with money in the kitty”, why not pay for operational assistance to ease the load on board members and allow their role to remain strategic?

MZ: The 2018 festival went over budget, and the Rural City helped us out with some serious underwriting. The overrun happened around travel, accommodation, infrastructure and production – all aspects of the festival that we had to put in place quickly with minimal negotiating power after our event managers resigned 10 weeks out from the festival. Our draft budget for 2019 was showing that we could have pulled a 2019 festival together, but not with any fat. This would have been our fourth year without a significant surplus, and we needed to change that pattern. Running that close to the line, year after year, is just plain irresponsible. Late last year we also lost our major National Jazz Awards sponsor and failed with two Australia Council for the Arts applications. These seemingly disconnected events constituted a huge risk for our volunteer Board when lumped together. As individual Directors, we wear the loss, except when our very good friends the Rural City of Wangaratta step up to assist, and we have agreed that neither organisation has the appetite for that again.

Ausjazz: What aspects of the structure and organisation of the festival were so deficient that it meant taking a year off to fix them?

MZ: I’ve probably said enough about this above, but more will be shared as we progress through the year.

Ausjazz: You’ve flagged that from the festival’s annual general meeting in March there will be “a total re-think”. What does this mean for the music? Will there be an effort to further broaden the appeal of the festival and how far will this involve moving away from the festival programming as it evolved under the artistic direction of Adrian Jackson?

You’ve said this re-think would include whether the festival should continue to be held on the weekend before Melbourne Cup Day. What other options have been suggested, and why?

MZ: In recent years there have been some extreme weather at the festival, such as floods and heatwaves. Locals have been saying that this time of year is no longer as stable as it used to be. We’re not saying there will be a change, but just that there’s an opportunity to check whether there needs to be. We’ll work with the Rural City of Wangaratta on this one.

Regarding any suggestion of a change in music, the festival is famous regionally, nationally and to some extent internationally as a contemporary jazz music that features exciting collaborations and the best of Australian jazz. It’s an arts festival, which is why it attracts arts funding. While I am involved I will keep singing that tune (or maybe I’ll scat a little). We’re a jazz and blues festival, and I don’t see that changing, not least because of the National Jazz Awards. If the Board membership changes significantly and there’s decision to move away from jazz and improvised music in any significant way, I’d probably not want to be involved. Adrian Jackson was and is a gifted curator and programmer. The team that followed brought their own vision and delivered two wonderful festivals. I’m excited to see what a new Board will choose to program the 30th.

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle article, mayor Dean Rees said the council would be staging a music festival in November this year that would be “just as big or better for the community”. Given the difficulty faced by the board in continuing to hold a music festival that has been running for 29 years, how realistic is it for the city to stage a totally new and “better” festival in the time available, starting from scratch?

Cr Rees also suggested this new festival would perhaps involve “a new genre of music” and said “it may be time to steer away from jazz”. Does this mean the end of council’s support and effectively the end of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues?

MZ: I can’t speak for the Rural City of Wangaratta and I guess they can’t speak for the festival. I’m not privy to their plans for the weekend and we’ve offered to assist in any way we can, when they start to put some ideas together. We may be able to leverage our significant connections in live music, to attract and support some kind of a placeholder for the festival in 2019.

Although intertwined, we are separate organisations. There’s no doubt that we each provide significant benefit to each other and we’re receiving no indication that the Rural City no longer supports the festival. We’re in discussions with them about what their support will look like and we’re committed to an ongoing partnership. I guess Cr Rees’ response to the news supports the information we’re receiving that this decision was an unwelcome shock to many locals, which tells us we probably should have shared more of what we were going through with the local community so they understood what we were dealing with.

Last year RCoW underwrote the festival, as we ran at a significant loss. Linked with that, we have been really transparent with the Rural City and we want to make sure we work together to minimise the effect of this decision on the local community.

Ausjazz: Finally, a lot of regular patrons have an annual booking with accommodation providers in Wangaratta because they come every year. What do you advise people in this situation to do now that there will not be jazz or blues happening in November and the future of the festival is uncertain?

MZ: I can’t see into the future but I think that if people can wait a couple of weeks to decide, they should – at least until after the AGM on 4 March and until we’ve managed to figure out how we can support the Rural City with whatever they decide to do with that weekend. The accommodation providers will take a hit from this, and I know we’d like to find a way to make sure that’s minimised.

ROGER MITCHELL appreciates the effort by Miriam Zolin to respond so promptly to these questions. Her replies have been published in full.

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THE MAYOR’S PERSPECTIVE ON WANG

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano.

Sumire Kubayashi (Japan) at the piano during the 2018 Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues.

Q&A

The Mayor of Wangaratta, Cr Dean Rees, was quick to respond to these questions, put to him today (February 5), about the future of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues, which has been postponed by a year until 2020:

Ausjazz: In the Wangaratta Chronicle you were quoted as saying that the council would be staging a music festival in November this year that would be “just as big or better for the community”. Given the difficulty faced by the board in continuing to hold a music festival that has been running for 29 years, how realistic is it for the city to stage a totally new and “better” festival in the time available, starting from scratch?

Mayor Rees: The festival board’s decision was obviously very recent, so our Events team will start planning now for something to fill the gap on that weekend. We’re confident it can be something big, but the planning really begins now.

Ausjazz: You also suggested this new festival would perhaps involve “a new genre of music” and said “it may be time to steer away from jazz”. Does this mean the end of council’s support for the festival and effectively the end of the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues?

Mayor Rees: The jazz festival board have said there will be a 30th Festival in 2020 and Council will consider support for that event when the detail of that event has been developed by the board.

Ausjazz: If the city does decide to support another kind of music festival, possibly one that would attract more visiting fans than those drawn to jazz and/or blues, what would the council consider supporting?

Mayor Rees: This is still being developed, but we’re welcome to all ideas.

Ausjazz: Festival chair Miriam Zolin said that after the festival AGM in March there would be a “total re-think” and this would include a decision on whether the festival should continue to be held on the weekend before Melbourne Cup Day. What other options have been suggested, and why?

Mayor Rees: This is best answered by the festival board.

Ausjazz: Finally, a lot of regular patrons have an annual booking with an accommodation provider in Wangaratta because they come every year. What do you advise people in this situation to do now that there will not be jazz or blues happening in November and

the future of the festival is uncertain?

Mayor Rees: I’d encourage people to visit Wangaratta. There will be something on on the long weekend and it is the perfect time to visit our region and enjoy the natural surrounds and gourmet food and wine on offer. Stay up to date and watch this space for an announcement.

ROGER MITCHELL

WANGARATTA FESTIVAL ON FURLOUGH

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Adam Simmons, third from left, takes a bow on stage at the Wangaratta Performing Arts Centre Theatre during the 2018 festival. He has now bowed out of his role as co-artistic director.

BREAKING NEWS

There will be no Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues in 2019.

This esteemed festival will take a break before celebrating its 30th anniversary in 2020.

In a media release embargoed until 10am today — Friday 1 February, 2019 — the festival board announced it had voted to postpone the festival’s 30th anniversary celebrations.

The 30th festival will now be held in 2020.

“It was not an easy decision to make, but we all voted with the best interests of the festival in mind, and we will be working towards delivering a landmark festival in 2020,” said Festival Chair Miriam Zolin.

The news release went on as follows:

While the 2018 festival was widely enjoyed and praised for its exciting program of local and international jazz and blues, the organisation, like many small arts organisations, has faced a number of operational pressures in recent years.

The recent resignation of co-artistic director Adam Simmons, and departure of long-term festival managers Nolan Media Events last year, has underscored the need to look strategically at the festival’s operating model, and its long-term sustainability.

“The board is committed to ensuring the future of the festival, and for now that means taking some time to look at the way we operate and plan for the years ahead,” said Zolin.

In the lead-up to this decision, the festival has held discussions with its funding partners, including the Rural City of Wangaratta and Creative Victoria. In December the Board took part in a strategic planning day which pointed clearly to a need to look at the festival’s operational and fundraising models.

“The Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has always been resilient in the face of change, and this decision will offer an invaluable opportunity for us to take a breath and revisit the festival’s structure,” said Zolin.

The Festival Board will work closely with its partners and the community to map out a future for the festival that ensures the festival’s vision and purpose stay strong.

“Just like the music that this festival celebrates, we’ll continue to be creative,” said Zolin.

“In 2019 we will develop a sustainable model for delivery of the festival into the future, and we need time to make sure we get it right. We will build on the success of 2018 and previous years to make the 30th festival one that celebrates all that Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues has contributed to the jazz and blues scene in Australia and in bringing the local Wangaratta community together.”

“We acknowledge and thank all of those who have played a role in our extraordinary story to date and look forward to working together on this next chapter for Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues.”

As well, festival chair Miriam Zolin’s media release provided some background about the Wangaratta Festival of Jazz & Blues:

In 1989 a group of Wangaratta business people suggested the idea of a music festival to Wangaratta Council. Council funded a feasibility study which concluded that a festival in Wangaratta could offer a point of difference from other music festivals, with a program based on modern and contemporary jazz. The first festival took place in 1990. The festival also hosts the National Jazz Awards with its associated prizes and prestige. The professional careers of previous winners and finalists have been significantly boosted, making the NJAs a hugely important in developing a future for Australian jazz and improvised music. Programming for the first 27 years was overseen by the inimitable Adrian Jackson OAM, who was honoured in the 2019 Australia Day Honours List with an Order of Australian Medal acknowledging his services to music. Since its inception, the festival has been a huge influence in the Australian jazz scene, as well as a significant contributor to artistic and cultural life and economic development in the Rural City and the broader North East of Victoria. The festival continues to work in close partnership with the Rural City of Wangaratta.

This news will be a huge shock to many dedicated fans who have travelled to Wangaratta for many years on the weekend before Cup day to enjoy this feast of music – jazz and blues, featuring national and international artists – available at venues in one location and accessible via a daily or weekend pass.

It is a bold move to postpone such a festival for a year just as it prepares to celebrate 30 years in which many, many musicians have created memorable and often unexpectedly exhilarating moments for so many patrons.

Will this be a hiccup that opens the way to a brighter future for this annual gathering at which fans mingle in the streets with musicians and the anticipation of experimentation is often in the air? Or will this signal a parting of the ways for rusted on fans? Let’s hope it is the former.

And what will the streets of Wang be like on that weekend in early November, without the buzz, without the crowds and queues, without the blues marquee and without the bustle and hustle of patrons heading for yet another gig?

Quiet.

Bring on 2020 and the 30th Wangaratta Festival of Jazz and Blues.

ROGER MITCHELL

PS: Those who have a regular booking for accommodation, remember to touch base with the local providers so they know you’ll be back, albeit a year later than anticipated.