Today it was announced that after seven years, the Sonoma Jazz Festival is pulling the plug. As a jazz fan, I have no immediate reaction to the news other than this: good riddance.
I would have had no real problem with the Sonoma Jazz Festival if the organizers had simply dropped the word “jazz” from its name. But they refused to do so. Instead, the Sonoma Jazz Festival siphoned shamelessly from the cultural cachet of the word “jazz,” presented wheezing baby-boomer classic rock acts and swirled it all down with Cabernet and a promise of doing good for the local economy and school music programs.
Yes, they donated money to local schools. But in booking the festival, they rarely honored their own mission statement to “present and preserve jazz.” Their headliners included Sheryl Crow, John Fogerty, Steve Winwood, Crosby Stills & Nash, Boz Scaggs, Steve Miller, LeAnn Rimes, Michael McDonald, Bonnie Raitt, Gipsy Kings, Chris Isaak, Joe Cocker and Kool & the Gang.
Nobody but an idiot or an asshole would ever call these acts jazz. It’d be like a “Sonoma Hip-Hop Festival” with the Barenaked Ladies, Limp Bizkit and Jack Johnson. Or a “Sonoma Farm-to-Table Festival” with In-n-Out Burger and Taco Bell. A “Sonoma Film Festival” that screened reality TV shows.
By continuing to call their festival a jazz festival, the Colorado-based organizers insulted the art form of jazz and, by association, embarrassed Sonoma County. It only got worse with the piddly concession of adding a “+” to the name. More then a few local jazz musicians I know joked that the festival was “Sonoma Jazz Minus,” except they weren’t really jokes. Jokes are supposed to be funny.
This is not to denigrate the worthy efforts of many locals who worked hard to make the festival what it was, some of whom actively pushed to get the name changed. And I would be remiss not to mention the few jazz and jazz-related acts that played the big tent in the “Field of Dreams”—Herbie Hancock, Harry Connick Jr., Diana Krall, and openers like Julian Lage and Hiromi come to mind.
But they all seemed like aberrant curiosities in Sonoma, politely endured instead of appreciated. In 2008, after Herbie Hancock opened his set with the Blue Note jazz classic “Cantaloupe Island,” an exodus of half-tipsy middle-aged wine country dilettantes who’d been trained that Michael McDonald is “jazz” filled the aisles and headed to their SUVs.
My very first experience in the cavernous, 3,000-seat tent also comes to mind—plunking down $110 for seats far away from the stage for Tony Bennett—and how it was marred by a well-heeled woman behind me blathering loudly on her phone, too bored to go through the motions of paying attention to one of America’s greatest song stylists. She eventually stumbled off into the wine lounge and never came back. Looks like the Sonoma Jazz Festival is following suit.