Jazz’SAlive @ 30: Dead Man Walking

As a newcomer to San Antonio, this was Tami’s first experience with Jazz’SAlive, the city’s homage to the art form held annually in Travis Park. And yes, we are jazz fans — Sunday brunch CANNOT commence without Henry Brun on KRTU. Back in 1985, when Page first arrived in town fresh from Canada, his first stop was at Jazz’SAlive. The incomparable Dave Brubeck was playing on the old, small Parks Department mobile stage, and Page’s buddy Charlie Mullins was running tech and sound that year. Mullins — gone too soon — went on to work as Road Manager for another legend, Steve Earle. Well, Page ended up working the show that night some 30-odd years ago. That’s just the way it rolls. Subsequently, in addition to being a local television director, Page went on to do sound for SA’s own Earfood Orchestra for a number of years.


Courtesy S.A. Parks Foundation — Artwork by Robert Tatum

Tami’s deep experience as a visual artist took her to many of the best festivals in the country, notably The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival. She has worked as a nonprofit arts administrator and has had the “joy” of working with teams to put these types of festivals together. So… we were really looking forward to having a great time when we rode down to soak up some good music and sunshine on Sunday afternoon. The experience in a word: Disappointing.

In the spirit of constructive criticism, let’s take a look at all the problems we encountered, and then offer up some solutions…

Problem: The sound quality was mediocre at best. No, actually it sucked. There was no dynamic range, no presence, no spark whatsoever. It sounded just plain FLAT. In this era of digital signal processing, it’s possible the sound “engineers” were relying too much on their DSP (Digital Signal Processing) units. Or they were just plain bad sound guys who should go back to working as stage crew and stay the hell away from the board. Dave Brubeck benefitted from better sound quality when he played in 1985 than he did in 2008.

I’ve never seen a PA system so small for such a large venue. Either technology has advanced, or the equipment provided was insufficient at best. As we rolled up to the show on Sunday night, we didn’t even hear the main stage until we passed the St. Anthony and were upon the park itself. Even aside from the low volume, the sound quality was poor. We were surprised to see the guy who was responsible for the sound sign off on it by standing at the board and listening. Any sound engineer worth his chops would have stood in the middle of the park — far back from the sound board — and checked the sound. That never happened.

And this is not coming from the overcritical mind of a retired sound engineer. More than one person has told us — unsolicited, no less — that they found the sound quality to be poor. One person even said that they left because it was so bad!

Theory #1: Is it possible that the audio was constrained by San Antonio’s noise ordinance? If that’s the case, find another venue where people won’t complain. However, we’ve been to other local festivals where the sound was louder than this, so, this is doubtful.

Theory #2: The main stage has VIP seating right up front (we’ll get to that particular travesty in a moment). Is it possible that they were tailoring the sound for the VIPs and no one else? No, that would never happen! Or would it…?

Page even went up to one of the sound guys and told him how poor the sound quality was out there in the middle of the park. Did he do anything besides shrug his shoulders? Of course not. Sound guys are mostly deaf (in more ways than one).

Solution: Hire somebody who really knows what they’re doing. That sums it up in 10 words or less. The person who is responsible for hiring the sound company should go to several festivals over the course of the year. Identify who has the best sound. Give them the contract. Dang, there was better sound quality from some of the pop-up booths lining Broadway for Síclovía!

Problem: The vendor selection was weak. Funnel cakes…really? C’mon guys, this isn’t Fiesta at Market Square in 1985. San Antonio has become much more sophisticated in its culinary tastes. Thank goodness. We will note there was one — and only one — food booth that was doing great business: a mom-and-pop BBQ operation. Everywhere we looked, what were people eating? Yep, some fine-looking Eastside-style BBQ!

And let’s not even mention the cheap jewelry and other tchotchke booths. Again…what year is this? Really?

Solution: Food trucks and quality vendors. Get rid of the food booths. Put food trucks all around Travis Park. Have a People’s Choice contest for best food truck. (Gee, are we the only ones in the room with any ideas?) The only on-site vendor worth a damn was Robert Tatum. He sells great stuff at reasonable prices. Others would be wise to follow his lead. If the event was brought up-to-date, it would be easier to bring in more quality vendors. Perhaps the Parks Foundation could partner with local arts organizations who have plenty of experience bringing in local and regional artists with interesting and unique wares to sell. That’s what it’s all about, isn’t it?

Problem: The Navarro Street Stage. Oooh, this is too easy. Like shooting ducks in a barrel. The Navarro Street Stage is 10 feet below the surface of the park, and it’s on the far side of the street. To make things worse, they cordon off the area in front of the stage for VIP seating. To make things EVEN worse, they put a giant BUD LIGHT banner on the scaffolding holding the spotlights (above the soundboard). So they’ve created two problems: (1) no one but VIPs can get even remotely close to the stage, and (2) nobody can even see the stage thanks to the distance from it and the BUD LIGHT banner blocking the view from anybody not sitting on the ground.

Look, we know sponsorship is important. But doing this to the detriment of people who don’t have the $$$ to be a sponsor or VIP? The San Antonio Parks Foundation is doing a GREAT job of Keeping San Antonio Lame, folks.

Solution #1: Let’s be egalitarian. Ditch the VIP area. If you need an area for them, put it beside and behind the stage. Charge everyone a modest admission (perhaps 5 or 10 dollars?) and let the little people get within more than 100 feet of the stage. Sorry if the VIPs might actually have to mingle with the hoi polloi, but that’s a risk they will have to take.

Solution #2: Fix the stage configuration. More on that below…

Problem: One “Local” Stage and one “Main” Stage. Why are the local artists relegated to a small stage with a poor sound system, while the big name acts are put on a large stage with a poor sound system, and then kept 100 feet away from their audience? Not only that, but why is there such a long gap between acts, where we get to watch the stagehands move in what seems to be slow-mo as they tear down one act and set up for the next?

Solution: Two equal stages. One of the most successful events ever staged in this city has been the Conjunto Shootout at Market Square. Two identical stages were set at opposite ends of Market Square on Santa Rosa street. One band ends its set, the other begins. The audience migrates between the stages. Something similar could be done in Travis Park — two equal stages, with little or no lag between acts. If you had seen Brubeck in 1985, you would have appreciated the intimacy of that show. Something that was totally lost to a large stage with a VIP area isolating the rest of us from the action, and a mediocre sound system.

Problem: Where are the contemporary acts? Yes, there were some great acts at this year’s festival, even though some would say there was too much 70’s smooth jazz. Although some credit Kenny G. with damn near killing jazz as a valid musical genre, to this day there are still musicians who are innovating and expanding the boundaries of this quintessential American art form. Except for KRTU DJ’s spinning discs early in the day, it seems that time stopped around 1979 at this festival. Nothing new here folks…

Solution: Bring in some contemporary acts. When we were at the festival, Page had the opportunity to discuss this issue with some of the KRTU folks. He was informed there were no local acts performing contemporary jazz. Yes, but we’ll bet there are artists in Austin and Houston who could fill this need. Texas is a big state — no need to be so provincial if we can’t find it within our own city limits.

Which leads us to the…

Bottom Line Problem: While we thank the San Antonio Parks Foundation and the organizers directly involved for putting on this event, it seems that the current management is just “phoning it in”. Perhaps it’s a case of ennui and not enough constructive criticism from outside. Very few people want to be critical of events like this less they lose VIP access, or whatever.

Bottom Line Solutions: Here are three modest proposals…

#1: The organizers can step up their game and address these issues head on. C’mon folks…make this a world class music festival. New Orleans Jazz Fest should be your goal! Dream big, or go home!

#2: The organizers should step aside and let someone who can bring this festival up to speed run the show. The Tobin Center brought in management from outside San Antonio to get the ball rolling. Perhaps that’s what is needed here.

#3: If the first two don’t work, then fork over the money to a professional company that specializes in these things.

Yes, all of this probably sounds harsh. But why is it that the same festival staged in 1985 was so much better than the one staged in 2013…?

Rhetorical question: If this event had to survive on its own without the support of the San Antonio Parks Foundation, would it?

San Antonio deserves better.


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