Top Billin’: Sonny Rollins booked for 2012 Jacksonville Jazz Festival.

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Mayor Alvin Brown was the star at a press conference held Thursday morning, Feb. 9, to formally announce the 2012 Jacksonville Jazz Festival, which will be held downtown May 24-27. The big news coming out can be summed-up in just two words: “Sonny Rollins”. Jazz fans will need no further embellishment, but for the uninitiated (and becoming a hard-core jazz fan is kind of like an initiation): With the sole exception of Dave Brubeck, Rollins is the world’s greatest living jazz musician, a man whose influence permeates almost the totality of the music in the 60+ years since he first made his name in post-bop New York.

One must note, also, the presence of two other masters among a lineup that is still being finalized: Chick Corea and Terence Blanchard. But the booking of Rollins, who at age 82 does not play concerts that often anymore, and rarely outside the areas more epicentric to the music, is a major coup of historic proportions. He is probably the most important musician to work our festival since those peak years when Dizzy Gillespie headlined multiple festivals toward the end of his life. But that was the ‘80s—a whole different world. The idea of Sonny Rollins appearing in Jacksonville, Florida in 2012 will, for some, be interpreted as a sign of imminent apocalypse; a heavy cynic might wonder if the world is destined to end the day before.

By attaching his name to the festival, Brown does it a service by basically making the festival brand symbiotic with his own. This is a great move, for his own interests, and it also puts a bit of pressure on him to make sure the festival’s long-term momentum is maintained. There were deep initial concerns about its very future coming into this year. Funding for Office of Special Events (which also oversees things like the World of Nations festival and Veterans Day parade) had been in some jeopardy during the last few years of budget battles; while truly significant cuts were not made, the specter of such cuts—and their disastrous effect on the city’s cultural identity—was often invoked by the Peyton administration in its later years.

Those fears, stoked by Peyton, caught fire soon after Brown succeeded him. Those now-infamous staff cuts last year hit the OSE hard, resulting in the elimination of its two top people. Theresa O’Donnell-Price and Christina Langston-Hughes were two of the unsung heroes of city government in the first decade of this century, skillfully implementing the mayor’s mandate to restore the vitality of a festival that had seen better days. Last year’s festival turned out to be their last at the OSE and, headlined by Herbie Hancock and Roy Ayers, one of the best ever. But Brown, at that point less than a month in as Mayor-Elect, was on vacation at the time, so he missed seeing what they could actually do—and within a few months, they were shown the door as unceremoniously as everyone else.

Losing them both, simultaneously, was the biggest blow to the festival as an institution since the scandalous staff cuts at WJCT that led directly to the collapse of the festival under its direction in the late-‘90s. It was a dark day for local jazz fans, that’s for sure, and anxiety about the future has only built-up since. Initial buzz on the 2012 festival has already gone a long way toward assuaging many of these concerns, but more can be done. In a nutshell, there should be a heavy representation of local artists at the festival, the businesses of the Urban Core need to be better-integrated into the overall experience, and the City should take the lead in establishing an even stronger presence for the festival in media, both in terms of social media, as well as trying to strengthen relationships with local and national media.

After WJCT basically washed their hands of the logistics, and the country caught its first taste of the post-9/11 economic instability, it was a gamble to invest public money in the Jazz Festival. (Bear in mind, there are people who oppose its public funding even now, despite the overwhelming evidence of disproportionate upside, in terms of economic impact. If all public monies could generate such direct and visceral return on investment, the whole world would be different right now.) But Peyton did it anyway, in early signs that he was far more moderate than he ever got credit for, and I think we can all agree that the gamble paid off.

It’s entirely likely that, had anyone else become mayor in 2003, the Jacksonville Jazz Festival would have never survived into the 21st century—the third century of jazz music, which was born in Storyville, New Orleans, in the late 1800s. For this, Peyton will surely someday join Jake Godbold among former mayors enshrined in the festival’s Hall of Fame. At this rate, Brown may end up there, too. He’s got a real gift for the kind of retail politics that work so well in the south, and initiatives like this put those skills out-front.

Having written more about the festival’s modern incarnation than any other reporter (if not all of them, combined), I can say that he’s done the two things I’ve always recommended the political leadership do: 1) Take advantage of the festival’s ability to bridge gaps among citizens, and 2) Bring Sonny Rollins to town. It will be curious to see if the national jazz media gives the festival a bit more hype now; we’ll see about that.

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