When I sat down for coffee with Ernest Stuart in mid-February, it was still unclear whether this would be a story about the upcoming inaugural Center City Jazz Festival or about a noble but ultimately failed effort to found it. One week before his 30-day Kickstarter campaign was due to expire, the tally was still just a touch over 50 percent and Stuart was already considering how much he could compromise on his vision, or whether he'd have to wait another year or two and fund the festival out of his own pocket.
But in the waning hours of Presidents Day the story found its happy ending, the $16,500 target hit with a little more than 48 hours left to go. And that's when reality set in. "The gravity of the situation hit home immediately," Stuart said over the phone following the campaign's successful conclusion. "Now I have to run this festival."
A festival can be a daunting prospect under the best of circumstances, and Philly has had little luck establishing one. With all signs pointing to last year's eighth annual West Oak Lane Festival being its last, Stuart's one-day affair will likely be the city's sole jazz fest in 2012 — and it's the brainchild of a single trombonist with something to prove.
"This whole thing started with me complaining about the type of jazz people were experiencing in this city," Stuart says. "We all want to have this Zen-like approach to appreciating jazz, where it's all such a great, beautiful thing. In reality there's some pretty shitty jazz groups out there and you can easily have a pretty shitty jazz experience in this city, a city that's steeped with so much culture. I want to create something that says that your jazz experience doesn't have to be antiquated and dated and unpleasant. I want to show a more energetic, more intense version of the music."
That goal has been the driving force behind much of Stuart's recent activity, from his monthly sweat-drenched jam sessions at Time to his touring schedule with Indian-inspired funk brass band Red Baraat to his recent self-released debut, a vibrant blend of R&B and jazz called Solitary Walker. He's currently in the process of producing and releasing a disc by singer Chrissie Loftus that possesses the same qualities.
"Music should motivate you towards something," Stuart offers as his philosophy. "It could be dancing, it could be self-reflection, it could be sex. And I think sometimes that's missing from the jazz that's performed regularly in the city, where it's more about the music in the notes than motivating people toward an action besides talking over your music. I think we could have a scene full of musicians playing with the type of love and intensity that can shut any conversation up."
Inspired by New York's Winter Jazzfest, Stuart envisions the first Center City Jazz Festival (ccjazzfest.com) as an intense, single-day marathon on Sat., April 28, with 16 bands playing multiple venues (Chris' Jazz Café, Time, MilkBoy) over eight hours, with intentions of growing in subsequent years. The artists will largely be locals or New Yorkers who share Stuart's outlook, including saxophonists Jaleel Shaw and Stacy Dillard, and pianist George Burton.
So the festival will happen, but Stuart still has plenty of work to do. Despite his grass-roots success, he has yet to generate much interest from the corporate or sponsorship world outside of a media partnership with Philadelphia magazine. "Most of the people I'm asking for money don't know who I am," Stuart admits. "But if you want to see something done, you can sit around and talk about how bad you want to see it done, or you can just do it. I just did it."