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 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.
Tucker is one of those studio legends who once played with everybody, people 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 recently by 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. It was with this in mind that I decided to accept an offer to become the new arts editor of the Charleston City Paper. Charleston has always been Savannah’s big sister. And it takes art seriously.
But I digress: Since 2002, the arts have been my beat in Savannah. During that time, I witnessed all manner of marketing hype, organizational disorder, provincial thinking, bombastic arrogance, and thin-skinned insanity.
Conversely, I witnessed the rise of the 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.
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.
You could say Savannah’s arts scene divides into two camps.
One contains the new people who have identified a business or artistic opportunity and who have brought with them a entire rubric of sensibility, taste, and knowledge from the cold wasteland to the north. Namely, Yankees.
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 folks 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, took Tucker’s success and professional bearing personally. He is an All-Star, but nowhere near as accomplished. After a petty dispute between them, Tucker found himself ousted from a group led by a semi-talented amateur.
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 railed, was chock full of errors, falsehoods, omissions, and outright lies.
Adding to my irritation was an attitude among organizers that the City of Savannah was obligated to pay for the jazz festival despire mediocre quality (to be fair, the Yellowjackets are headlining the 2007 festival, a positive sign). The Savannah Jazz Festival, the thinking went, was the Sacred Cow. As such, it was not accustomed to being scrutinized, a fact visible in the paperwork festival organizers have to submit annually to the city in order to get public money.
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: 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; 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 it 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.