No high resolution image exists...
We old-timers will likely continue to call it “Jazzfest” or even “the Jubilee” for some time to come, but as of today, Sacramento’s Memorial Day tradition for 38 years, the Sacramento Jazz Festival in Old Sacramento, is going by a new name: The Sacramento Music Festival.
The airport isn’t the only SMF in town any more.
Name changes are nothing new for the event, which began its life as the Dixieland Jazz Jubilee in 1973 and became the Sacramento Jazz Festival a couple of decades after that. But jazz has long since ceased to be the only, or even the dominant musical form at the festival, which has for years featured many blues, swing and other traditional music acts.
The festival has also found itself in a bit of a quandary in recent years, with dwindling crowds and a waning cultural presence in town, trying to stay true to its rootsy roots, beloved of its aging fan base, but watching that fan base age – and worse.
Hearing about the name change jogged my memory. I got into big trouble as a young pop music critic at The Sacramento Bee, when the editor of the paper, Gregory Favre, strongly suggested that I apologize to a member of that older set when I referred to the event in a review as “the Woodstock of the Geritol Generation.”
The offended party was not just another retiree; she was the late PR diva Jean Runyon, whose husband was involved in the production of the festival, which at the time – 1985 or so – was still going great guns and had many friends in powerful places.
That's how important that event was in the culture of the time, “Bill Bailey” notwithstanding. To their credit, the Sacramento Music Festival’s organizers have clearly seen that the future is not in traditional jazz. That they have yet to figure out that the future isn’t in traditional blues either, or for that matter, traditional rock or funk, remains to be seen. Then again, the new Geritol Generation will be made up of Baby Boomers. Double yikes.
But I’m getting snarky again. This change strikes me as a bit desperate and perhaps not the best solution. After all, this is a festival that takes place in a living museum, Old Sacramento, so the festival strays from its roots at its own peril.
The problem with a name like the Sacramento Music Festival is that it means essentially nothing. The Dixieland Jazz Jubilee is a brand, and a powerful one. By contrast, the Sacramento Music Festival is safe, broad, flexible and open to interpretation.
Or to being ignored.
The proof will come in the fall and spring, in the booking of the hundreds of acts that will appear next year. The Sacramento Convention and Visitors Bureau’s Mike Testa is quoted in a press release as saying that the new, renamed festival will feature “nationally known groups from the more mainstream genres like Rock and Country.” If that turns the festival into something more like Seattle’s eclectic Bumbershoot, I’m on board.
But if the booking is as uninspired and uninspiring as this new name, we’re in trouble.
Testa’s quote scares me. Why? Is it the wanton capitalization of genres? Is it the use of the word “mainstream”? Or is it the sinking feeling that this is a desperate attempt to remake a festival whose purpose has disappeared along with its audience?
Time will tell. I would love to see this event retooled completely, to match the new name. Perhaps it will revive the ignored-and-abused-to-death Sacramento Heritage Festival that Mike Balma and Brian McKenna put together year after year in the face of official neglect and even abuse until it died long before it should have.
Sacramento has a history of quashing truly creative public events, especially musical ones, though that has changed in the last decade. What will happen with the JazzFest … er, SMF … remains an open question. But we’re not off to a great start.
What’s in a name? Well, in the case of the old name, history and identity. In the case of the Sacramento Music Festival, not much. Yet.
This column was edited after being published.