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Forward Together: Gerald Veasley on Jazz Philadelphia Summit 2022

Gerald Veasley performs during The Black Academy of Arts & Letters 5th Annual Riverfront Jazz Festival at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, TX on on Sept. 4, 2022.
Marcus Ingram
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Gerald Veasley performs during The Black Academy of Arts & Letters 5th Annual Riverfront Jazz Festival at Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center in Dallas, TX on on Sept. 4, 2022.

TheJazz Philadelphia Summit, happening this Thursday and Friday, marks the latest manifestation of a grassroots effort combining advocacy, coalition-building and education. According to bassist and bandleader Gerald Veasley, it's a direct response to the many challenges on the ground in one of jazz's great cities.

Veasley – President ofJazz Philadelphia, the nonprofit organization behind the summit – spoke recently with WRTI's Josh Jackson about the intention behind the event, and how it has evolved over the last several years.

"I think it's important that we revere our past, because Philadelphia has a right to look at itself as one of the prime places where the music developed and grew," Veasley reflects. "But we don't rest on that history, because there are people that need to be served now."

Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation.

Can you talk a little about how the Jazz Philadelphia Summit got started?

Absolutely. Jazz Philadelphia was created to be a place where many of the folks who are doing great work in jazz education, jazz presenting and performance could come together for conversation, problem-solving and collaboration. And I thought there was probably no better way to do that than to have a physical convening, like a convention. But a convention that's a little different – one that's not focused on the industry but focused on really building community. We have three pillars with the Jazz Philadelphia Summit, which is to connect, discover, and celebrate. So that's what we try to do every year. The first two years, 2018 and 2019, it was an in-person event, which was fabulous; we were able to bring hundreds of people together at U. Arts and the Kimmel Center. Then of course, the pandemic happened, and we had to shift to an online version.

What we discovered was that we were able to delve deeper into even more emotionally important topics, like issues of race, issues of women's participation in jazz. In some ways, using the online format freed us up to do deeper dives into things that might have been a little trickier in person. The other thing that happened was, because a lot of artists were not touring, we were able to pull in some fantastic artists who ordinarily would have been busy. It was an abundance of riches even in the midst of the pandemic. So now, fast forward to 2022, we're using a hybrid model. On Thursday, Oct. 27, we'll bring the community together in person at the University of the Arts, and then on Friday, Oct. 28, we'll have a virtual convening with workshops and panel discussions online. We’ll conclude the entire weekend with an in-person performance that we call our Homecoming Jam at the Kimmel Center, after the Jazzmeia Horn concert, and it'll include some important Philadelphia luminaries, like Robin Eubanks, Jonathan Blake, Diane Monroe.

When people talk about jazz in Philadelphia, they often talk wistfully about the past. Do you get a sense that there's also some new vitality getting directed into the scene?

Yeah, very much so. There’s a new energy, because some of the younger players now have accepted the fact that we don't have as many venues as there were in the past where people could develop. There was the Golden Mile over on Ridge Avenue. Right where WRTI is located was a rich bed for music, with jazz clubs all up and down what we used to call Columbia Avenue. Those days are gone. However, what's interesting is that the musicians, the young ones, are still here, and so they are creating a scene that is – in addition to the traditional places where we present music, we're finding art museums can be places where the music is played. It could be community centers. It could be playgrounds. It could be pop-up performances. So the scene is richer, and I think because now musicians are starting to think more expansively about where the music can be presented. And that's what I'm excited about.

When you talk about people creating space for the music to breathe and to exist in a lot of ways, how can Jazz Philadelphia can support something like this as a collective impact model?

I think there's a great opportunity to share our stories. And what I mean by that is: when we have best practices that work, Jazz Philadelphia is a convener that brings folks to talk about what's working and what's not. And to also take lessons from other cities. The collective impact model, what it does more than anything else is recognize that there is a lot of expertise at the grassroots level – that folks who are doing this work, day in and day out, know how to reach their audiences. They know how to connect with people; they know how to present music. So what we try to do is make sure that those voices are heard, and bring people together who wouldn't necessarily ever have a chance to collaborate, or even discuss what their victories and failures have been.

I think one of the biggest goals that we can all work toward is building audience. Because when there’s a great performance happening with a small number of people in attendance, it doesn't diminish the greatness of the music. It presents a question of: how do we reach the people who would love it? That's something that WRTI does very well: It acknowledges that there are people who love this music, and you make sure you deliver it to them, and make sure that they know that you're there to deliver it to them. I think it's not that different from what organizations who present have to do. And frankly, this is the pivot that musicians have to do as well. That we have to take ownership for telling the stories about our music. That doesn't mean we have to become experts at marketing all of a sudden, but we do have to be better at telling the stories to the people who would come, and hear what we have to offer and applaud us and encourage us. We have to reach them. So it's a group effort, at the individual level and at the institutional level. And the underpinning of all of it is trust. That's been a big part of what Jazz Philadelphia’s work has been over the past four years – to make sure that we realize that we have common goals, and that we can trust one another. That's a difficult conversation, because we live in a society and a city where we have real scarcity. We have a perception of scarcity, which makes us distrustful; but we have real scarcity, too. We have to grapple with both, and it happens by creating an atmosphere of trust.

Let's dig into that scarcity a little more, if you don't mind. Jazz has never really had a large pie, and I'll be very honest, as someone who programs from both the classical perspective and jazz, they can feel like two different entities entirely. So I guess my question is: how do we grow the pie?

I think you've nailed what the real challenge is, which is growing the pie. Because if you don't do that, we will always be fighting for what ends up being a small slice. I keep coming back to WRTI as an example of: you communicate the story. You communicate the power of the music. Because in a country that has 300 million people, you can't tell me there aren't enough people who are drawn to the arts. And in a city that has 1.6 million people, you can't tell me there aren’t enough people to support something that's really going to enhance their life. Jazz is a musical form that’s entertaining, it's thought-provoking. It can be challenging, but it could also be very inspiring. So we have something that is rich, I think very attractive for people to support. But it's up to us to tell the stories and to gather people to experience what it what we have to offer. In terms of some of the inequities of funding, that's going to be a long process in breaking down some of those barriers. But I can already see evidence of how funders are thinking about equity, and making sure that marginalized communities get funding that they need to do their work, including in the arts and culture space.

What are you most excited about with the Jazz Summit? You've got Jazzmeia Horn giving a speech from the artist perspective. You've got a town hall with a varied constituency of people talking about creating these unlikely alliances. And you're celebrating a living legend in drummer Roger Humphries. There's a lot of stuff going on. But if you had to pick your winner, what is it?

If I can pick two winners, I'll say first I’m excited about the process which is new for us, which is to make the gathering more community-driven, more community-curated. And what I mean by that is, we went out to the community and asked: what kind of programming would you like to see? What ideas do you have? So there are some that are explicitly created by members of the community, such as our panel discussion about how to market your album. That came from a member of the community. I always felt that the summit should not just be Jazz Philadelphia's event as an organization, but in a real, honest way, the community’s event. Where the ideas come out of the community, where it's the community's energy.

In terms of the actual program, I think the one that will be the most impactful is our Town Hall, which we call “Unlikely Allies,” which is all about having this discussion about how do we create a financially sustainable ecosystem, primarily for artists who have been trying to grapple with the same issue of a living wage for decades. I’m thankful that you're going to be the one to facilitate that discussion, and I'm excited about others who will be joining from our newNight Time Economy Director, Raheem Manning, toArs Nova Workshop's Mark Christman, who is a visionary. We've got um Kim Tucker, who leadsJazz Bridge, which is exciting because from their very inception, it's been all about supporting artists with their needs. I won't go into every single detail. But we've got an insightful panel of folks that you'll lead in discussion, and we'll most of all invite the community to share their views, or what some of the challenges ahead, and what's possible solutions there might be to create a sustainable ecosystem for us.

One of the issues always is: what happens next? After the summit, the danger is that everyone goes right back into the things that they've been doing. What do you want to see happen out of these summits, something that lives beyond two days of very intense community gathering?

What we always intend is for people to gather for possibility of collaboration. People are coming together to develop new relationships, but also to deepen relationships for the whole purpose of possibly collaborating. And we've seen evidence of that in some of the gatherings in the past, where organizations who didn't work on projects together will apply for joint funding. On the content side, it's important that we do two things. One is that we develop what we call a toolkit where we take these great learnings – and we and we've done this in a past summit. Most of all we want the information to be shared, and also interrogated to see if it resonates. And then the other thing that we can do as an organization is to keep the conversation going. Another silver lining of the pandemic is that we've all learned how to use Zoom and other kinds of virtual platforms where we can get together. So during the pandemic, one of the things that we did was hold community-wide meetings to surface what people were challenged with, and also to offer solutions and point people to resources. So I see us doing that work, where we don't just get people inspired and invigorated. But we continue to gather people for problem-solving.

 I think the last question I'd like to ask you, Gerald, is about Jazz Philadelphia itself. I know the organization has spent a lot of time rethinking its mission and its purpose. And if you can kind of give me a sense of like what's come out of that process – what some of the critical questions were, and how you resolved them.

I'm proud of the arc of the history of the organization, because when we first started in 2018, we wanted to make sure we reached all stakeholders. We had a lot of discussions with what we call working groups – a working group of musicians and artists, a working group of educators, one of other nonprofit organizations, and a media working group. And through all these continued conversations, with the strategic planning process behind us, we realized the thing that will be most impactful is to serve musicians. So Jazz Philadelphia, we want to create a space where musicians are supported better than anywhere else in the world. That's important, because that's where the music comes from.

You can’t have great art without artists. So we started off as an organization that wanted to hear from all stakeholders and take that information and see what their challenges were, and support them. And now we're honing in on what we can do best. You'll see that in our programming moving forward. We've already done some of that work in programs like our Core Cooperative, which is a ten-week intensive program that offers entrepreneurship training to musicians. But this is the shift that we're making.

The second big shift is that we are now positioned to lead the movement towards an international jazz festival – something that Philadelphia needs, and that Philadelphia can do as well as anywhere else in the world. With an important distinction, one that will serve audiences but also serve our local musicians. That will be a place where you can see international and national musicians with acclaim, but one that when you pack up all the equipment and everybody goes home, that the homegrown musician can say, “Hey, we are part of that. We're proud to be a part of this effort as well.”

You just dropped some fairly large news there, Gerald Veasley. One more question, if you will: remind me what the theme of this summit is, and tell me what it means to you.

  Our theme this year is “Forward Together,” and it is an example of everything that we've been talking about. How to rectify some of the issues that could only be done collaboratively, where we have to listen to one another. We have to not only get out of our silos, but we also have to break down some of our assumptions. So the Town Hall is a great example of that. We want to have people from different sectors of the community share what they're really what their day-to-day work is like. So “Forward Together” means we're breaking away from our old stories, creating new stories and creating new opportunities. But doing it with this deepened commitment to collaborating.