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Despite the odds, the second annual St. Louis Jazz Festival will succeed -- thanks to all the help from corporate backers

There's something about music festivals -- at least those with an admission price -- that just doesn't seem to go down well with St. Louis audiences. The St. Louis Blues & Heritage Festival, which put together some great lineups of talent from 1993-97, is defunct, having been replaced by the free Big Muddy Blues & Roots Fest on Laclede's Landing. Some may argue that the blues and heritage fest shot itself in the foot with its disastrous move to suburban Buder Park in 1997. But the fact remains that the event had outgrown the Landing; and many Landing merchants helped push it away, preferring the smaller scope of the free Big Muddy event, which allowed them to boost food and drink sales at their own establishments rather than within an enclosed festival area.

The U.S. Bank St. Louis Jazz Festival means to change the perception that music fans don't want to pay up for their outdoor entertainment. As the jazz fest heads into its second year this weekend at Shaw Park in Clayton, everything seems to be in place for a successful event. The billing balances nationally known name artists such as Branford Marsalis, George Benson and Nicholas Payton with up-and-coming vocalists Claudia Acuña and Nnenna Freelon, University City native Jeremy Davenport and a host of top local musicians.

Organizers have also taken pains to improve the layout of the festival, rethinking sight lines and stage locations. Another wise decision was reducing the VIP area: Last year, the chain-link fences blocked off large sections of the stages from the view of the general public and lent a distinctly unpleasant class-conscious feel to the proceedings.

But most important for the long-term success of the jazz fest is the dramatically increased list of sponsors. "It was a pleasant surprise," says Cynthia Prost, executive director of the festival. "All our sponsors from last year renewed in a heartbeat. And we've added at least ten additional major sponsors for 2002 -- from BMW as our official car to Michelob Light as the official beer. Jazz Times magazine has also gotten involved to help promote the festival on a national basis, and we've even gotten Yamaha and Aeolian pianos involved. Yamaha will have a master piano tuner on site throughout the event to keep the pianos tuned up for every set."

Jazzhead purists will no doubt shudder at the commercialization -- shouldn't the artists be the essence of any jazz festival? -- but, like it or not, the festival's success, indeed survival, depends on corporate sponsorship. The trend began years ago, and it's certainly not unique to jazz and blues concerts. From package tours such as the Vans Warped to Jeep's sponsorship of Sheryl Crow's current summer jaunt, the connection between music and commerce grows more pronounced every year. Now, when a major tour hits town without a corporate name attached, it seems almost jarring.

Although jazz has a minuscule market share of CD sales compared with rock, rap and pop, there's a reason corporations are so eager to sponsor jazz festivals. Such events typically attract an older, more upscale crowd -- but also appeal to the late-twenties/early-thirties demographic that corporations must reach to build brand recognition and loyalty.

But those corporate sponsorships don't just fall into the laps of festival producers. Sponsors want to see a track record and results from their investment -- and that's one thing the St. Louis Jazz Fest staff possesses in abundance. Prost and other key players are the same pros that have made the St. Louis Art Fair one of the top events of its type in the nation. The art fair staff had already established major inroads in corporate St. Louis through sponsorships of that event, which made finding backers for the jazz fest much simpler.

Of course, such concerns are moot without the requisite musical savvy and booking experience to put together an attractive musical lineup. That's where the expertise of the performance committee comes into play. The committee comprises Sheldon Concert Hall executive director Paul Reuter and operations manager Dale Benz, MaxJazz label owner Rich McDonnell, Jazz at the Bistro director Gene Dobbs Bradford and jazz fan and KMOX-AM DJ Don Wolff.

"All the credit goes to those five members of our performance committee," Prost says. "The only requests we made to them in getting the lineup was to provide a headliner for each night, preferably ones who had crossover appeal, and to add some diversity with vocalists and female musicians. It's a tricky job, because you want balance without getting too avant-garde or too mainstream. I try and stay out of it," she concludes with a laugh. "That's probably why it turned out so well."

Friday's performance schedule concludes with George Benson, preceded by Jeremy Davenport and Claudia Acuña on the main stages and the Freddie Washington Quartet playing between sets on the "Tribute to Gaslight Square" stage. The festival wraps up on Saturday evening with a performance by Branford Marsalis. Earlier main-stage performances on Saturday include local acts Hard Bop Heritage and Willie Akins, the Robin Nolan Trio from the Netherlands, Payton and Freelon. The Gaslight Square stage will feature the Dave Venn and Jonathan Whiting duos and Trio Très Bien.

"Basically you get input, throw the names in a hopper, see who's actually out on tour and available on the festival dates, see if they meet your needs in terms of name recognition, musical style and, of course, your budget," explains Reuter. "You're never going to make everyone happy, but I think we assembled a schedule of artists that has considerable appeal. Some people may think George Benson doesn't really play jazz anymore, but that's where his musical roots lie, and in live performance he still has the reputation as a great guitarist. Plus, we found out he was playing a private event in Chicago on the next night, so we were able to gain some economies in booking him."

After booking the talent, the festival committee took the experience gained from last year's debut and attempted to improve the physical setup for the 2002 event. Attendees last year were faced with the task of negotiating around a 100-yard chain-link fence that practically bisected the festival grounds, and an early 5 p.m. start on Friday made for a late-arriving crowd that evening. This year, the fence will be taken down, and Friday's start time has been pushed back to 6 p.m.

With those and other improvements in place (such as no simultaneous performances), Prost believes the jazz fest can hit a paid attendance of 20,000 for the two-day event.

"To reach that goal, we only need to increase our Friday attendance by 3,000 -- and keep our Saturday crowds up to last year's standards," she says. "We haven't raised ticket prices from last year's $15-a-day or $25-for-both-day prices, so that really seems like an objective we can reach."

The only possible problem is rainy weather, but even that prospect doesn't faze Prost. "You can't do anything about the weather anyway, except hope for the best. And even rain wouldn't prevent us from continuing the festival next year. We've got a solid foundation for this event, we know people will show up to see these excellent musicians and we have the support of the corporate community to keep things going."

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More by Terry Perkins

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