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September 21, 2007

Hinterland Diary: Being told to shut up

John Stoehr

Stephanie Barna, the editor of the Charleston City Paper, asked if I'd be interested in writing an advance piece on the Savannah Jazz Festival. She thought it was something worthy of previewing. It would also be a chance for me to introduce myself as the CP's new arts editor.

I said sure, but that the festival wasn't worth driving from Charleston to see. Nevertheless, I said, writing about the jazz festival might be a good way of explaining Savannah's dynamic (read: staggering, brilliant, inconsistant, erratic) arts scene and why I'm looking forward to living in Charleston.

Here's the result of my musings. An edited version will be published (I think) next week at www.charlestoncitypaper.com.

The first time I interviewed one of the organizers of the Savannah Jazz Festival, I was told to shut up and listen -- you write what I was tell you to write, son.

I was looking into why the city's most respected jazz musician, bassist Ben Tucker, had not been invited to perform at the festival with a group called the Hall of Fame All-Stars, a band assembled in honor by the Coastal Jazz Association, which organizes the free annual event in Savannah's pastoral Forsyth Park.

Tucker is one of those studio legends who once played with everybody, like Benny Goodman, Shirley Horn and Johnny Mathis. With James Moody (the saxman sideman for Dizzy Gillespie) and Ben Riley (Thelonious Monk's brilliant longtime drummer), Tucker is Savannah's most famous jazz export. His "Comin' Home, Baby" was re-recorded by the wildly popular jazz singer Michael Buble.

Back to being told to shut up: I don't like being told to shut up. It irritates me. But this was merely among the first hard news stories I would write as the arts reporter for the Savannah Morning News. I was only beginning to experience the profound levels of irritation that were to characterize my tenure in Savannah.

For three years, the arts were my beat for the only mainstream newspaper in the Hostess City. I witnessed all manner of marketing hype, organizational disorder, provincial thinking, bombastic arrogance and thin-skinned insanity.

Conversely, I witnessed the rise of city's three major arts institutions to national recognition: the Savannah Music Festival, the Savannah College of Art and Design and the Telfair Museum of Art, all of which raised the local arts bar while raising Savannah's profile as a city that loves the arts.

Indeed, there is much to warrant Savannah's growing reputation as an arts city, the Music Festival being only the most obvious reason. What's hidden beneath the city's 18th-century Anglophilic facade, however, is a maddening hash of cosmopolitan aesthetes, philanthropic potentates, grass-roots rubes, amateur thespians and eccentric dilettantes as well as serious professionals and brilliant innovators whose work is often mired in an abundance of mediocrity.

It was often hard to tell what to take seriously and what to just ignore.

Anyway, you could say Savannah's arts scene divides into two camps.

One contains the new people, usually Yankees, who have identified a business or artistic opportunity and who have brought with them a entire rubric of sensibility, taste and judgment from the cold wasteland to the north. Here you find the Telfair, the music festival, SCAD and an army of visual artists who have moved here for the education, the great weather, cheap housing or all three.

The other includes people who've been doing art the same way for 30 goddamn years. They expect garlands and accolades. They don't like new folk coming in who do what they do better. Some of them accept change, some step aside. Others don't and they are (sad as it is to say) green with envy.

Remember the guy who told me to shut up? Guess which camp he's in?

It turns out Ben Tucker was ostracized because this guy, who books all the festival acts, was jealous. That's the conclusion one comes to. The guy in question is an All-Star, but no where near as accomplished as Tucker. So when there was, some years ago, a dispute between them, he took the opportunity to rally All-Star sentiment against Tucker, which led to his ouster.

All of this was made public on the front page of the Morning News. No one questioned my reporting, but some months later I received a copy of the newsletter written by the then-president of the Coastal Jazz Association.

It contained Profound Irritation No. 2 of this epic saga -- my front-page report, the author said, was chock full of errors, omissions and outright lies. (For the record, Tucker and his nemesis have since kissed and made up; Tucker will perform with the Hall of Fame All-Stars.)

Adding to my irritation was the idea that my "lies" contributed to a period of clear-as-day decline in the jazz festival's quality. When I arrived in Savannah, in 2001, the festival was pretty kick-ass. For the past four years, however, the festival has featured an array of no-name acts, second-stringers and has-beens.

But to hear organizers tell it, the jazz festival is among the elite jazz events in the Southeast, right up there with the Jacksonville Jazz Festival, Charleston's ChazzFest and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.

Let's comparison shop, shall we? In 2007, the headliners were/are: for Bubbaville, George Benson and Al Jarreau; for Chucktown, Branford Marsalis and Kool and the Gang; for NOLA, Norah Jones, John Legend, other celebrities.

And Savannah? Some guy named Dee Lucas. (To be fair, the festival is bringing in the Yellow Jackets, the most "popular" smooth jazz act I have seen in Savannah; even so, no one by the name Marsalis is in the Yellow Jackets.)

I should say at this point that I'm a fan of the jazz festival. I studied jazz history and form, played jazz in college. I have an inside-baseball admiration for the artists who come here even when most people don't know who they are.

But taking my jazzbo beret off for a minute, I don't like being told to shut up (as I've genteelly mused) and I don't like being told -- publicly -- that I lied in print (which is false, by the way). Worse is the Sacred Cow smugness festival organizers have, which assumes the City of Savannah will pick up the tab.

Which it does every year, to the consternation of many.

This arrogance is so great that the paperwork required by the city in order to get public funding was hardly taken seriously during the same period in which the quality of the festival was in steep decline.

Just before last year's festival, I painstakingly pored over these public documents to discover what must be the most glaring overstatement I've seen as an arts reporter: that estimates for the number of people attending the free outdoor festival included the number of hits on the organization's website.

This is not just incompetence, though it surely is that. There is also a financial incentive for inflating crowd numbers: the more people who go to an event, the cheaper it is per person for the city to fund it; and the cheaper it is, the more likely you are to get a big fat check courtesy of Savannah taxpayers.

Remember, the jazz fest is Savannah's Sacred Cow. It never gets scrutinized. Well, this time is did and this time no one called me a liar. But if that's what it takes to get a quality jazz festival, I don't need it. I'd rather head for Charleston, where art is taken seriously and (maybe) I won't be told to shut up.

John Stoehr is a cultural critic and, effective Oct. 17, the new arts editor for the Charleston City Paper.

Posted by John Stoehr at September 21, 2007 11:51 AM