Jon Ross | 05 MAY 2020
Every memorial day weekend, around 100,000 Atlantans pack Piedmont Park for the free, multi-day Atlanta Jazz Festival. A smattering of top-tier headliners from the jazz world invariably appear every year, but to the legions of festival-goers in the park, the event is much more than a series of concerts. Large families spread out towering sun shades and tents on the grassy slope that rolls into the park meadow, while others pack in on a patchwork of blankets near the main stage. Social distancing, despite the invariably scorching temperatures, is in very short supply.
Evolving guidelines from the state and city governments regarding the coronavirus pandemic have forced the city’s Office of Cultural Affairs to postpone this year’s festival, originally scheduled for May 23 and 24. The 43rd annual festival would have already been a smaller affair than in recent years, with two days of music scheduled on just two stages. Now instead of putting the finishing touches on the event, organizers are working to find a new weekend for the festival.
“We would love to have the festival,” said Camille Russell Love, executive director of Atlanta’s Office of Cultural Affairs, which puts on the festival. “We’re still working toward that. We have a regular weekly meeting to see where we are.”
Russell Love has floated potential dates in August by many of the performers originally slated to appear this year, and there have been very few conflicts with potential new dates. Ultimately, any alternative weekend for the festival will be solidified pending the results of the city’s reopening advisory group, which began meeting in late April to debate strategies behind opening up the city. The panel will present recommendations regarding loosening pandemic restrictions to the mayor by May 15.
The task force would, in theory, also address the need for personal protective equipment for festival goers, as well as social distancing guidelines. So much is up in the air at this point that Russell Love hasn’t really discussed what a socially-distanced jazz festival might look like.
“We haven’t given it a whole lot of energy because we need to wait and see what the guidelines are going to be,” she said. “It doesn’t make much sense to start a process and then have to change it.”
The Office of Cultural Affairs isn’t the only organization taking a wait-and-see approach in regard to large events. As of this moment, no large arts organization has presented a wide-scale workable plan for social distancing in a concert setting, whether outdoors or in.
Jazz is still being presented by the city, despite recent challenges. On Friday, the Office of Cultural Affairs launched the Atlanta Jazz Festival Sessions, a series of pre-recorded, 30-minute concerts highlighting local musicians. For the first weekend, performers like Joe Gransden, Kenny Banks, Sr., Mike Burton and Phil Davis graced a recording studio festooned with Atlanta Jazz Festival branding. The performances are streamed live every night through the end of the month on the Atlanta Jazz Festival Facebook page. The videos are also archived for repeat viewing.
“One of the challenges that all the people in the creative community are facing is the loss of gigs, and revenue and employment opportunities,” she said, explaining that the videos grew out of the cancellation of the yearly 31 Days of Jazz event. “We’re taking the remainder of our allocated general fund budget, and we are pushing it out to the community as quickly and as efficiently as we can.”
Russell Love knows that the virtual jazz sessions a small way to make an impact in the lives of local musicians. The gigs lost to restaurant, bar and club closures during the pandemic are just the start of artistic hardship. Strained government budgets will likely usher in austerity measures directed at the creative community.
“What we have to hope is … that the importance of arts and culture and music and entertainment doesn’t get lost and doesn’t get prioritized lower than other human needs,” she said. “Because satisfying your soul is a human need as well.” ■
Jon Ross writes about jazz, pop and classical music for Downbeat magazine, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Atlanta Magazine and other publications.