A Pivotal Year

Harold McMillan
photograph byKenny Braun

Last year, in a similar space, in the same, corresponding issue, Harold McMillan, whose DiverseArts organization stages the annual Clarksville-West End Jazz and Arts Festival, talked about 1996 being a pivotal year for the local event. What made it pivotal was the festival's previous year, in which the heart of the week-long celebration -- the two-day gathering in Pease Park -- had been done in by some last-minute competition, the Louisiana Swamp Romp. (This year, the ever-popular Cajun party takes place this Saturday, while the Pease Park convergence happens next weekend.) McMillan evinced no audible sour grapes over the 1995 jazz festival performing well below his organization's expectations, but clearly, a lot was riding on last year`s outcome. Unfortunately, last year didn't do so well, either.

As this reporter wrote in a "Live Shot" on the event, somebody threw a party and nobody came. At its high-water mark, during legendary organist Jimmy Smith's set, there were perhaps 300-400 people in Pease Park. Most of the time, though, attendance ranged in the 100-200 vicinity. It was sad, particularly because the local talent -- folks like Tina Marsh, Hope Morgan, Beth Ullman and Rich Harney, the Jon Blondell Big Band -- were so good. Once again, jazz, that historically underappreciated, underattended, and underfinanced of American art forms -- the American art-form -- was all but ignored.

"Big time," says McMillan, "but [financially] we didn't do that terribly last year, because we didn't have as much money to spend. And if you don't have as much money to spend, then you don't lose that much. We pretty much accomplished the baseline of what we needed to do last year, which was put on the best show we could at that funding level, keep our chins up and get through it, and at that point, start thinking about our 10-year anniversary two years from then. And that's where we are now."

That would be year nine for those keeping score, and those of us that are will tell you that McMillan's jazz festival has rebounded remarkably well given the past two years. Sporting national talent like Roy Hargrove & Crisol and Ellis Marsalis, as well as regional acts such as San Antonio's Sebastian Campesi and Houston's DJ Sun, and local stalwarts like Frederick Sanders, Hope Morgan, Elias Haslanger, East Babylon Symphony and a host of others (see schedule), this year's jazz festival looks to be one of the best yet, which McMillan, surprisingly enough, attributes in part to the City of Austin.

"For the first time in the history of our little organization," he explains, "we actually got a reasonable amount of cultural contracts monies from the city for our entire season. [DiverseArts also puts on local events like the Blues Family Tree project.] I was actually able to get some people on board early enough to start beating the bushes."

Beating the bushes not only meant doing local fundraising for an event McMillan estimates will cost more than $100,000 to produce (the city ponied up $30,000 for the entire DiverseArts season), it also meant courting local media sponsors (Texas Monthly, Fox 7-KTBC, KUT-FM, the Austin-American Statesman), regional media coverage (Houston and Dallas), and enough product, service, and labor trades to underwrite as much of the festival as possible for McMillan's non-profit DiverseArts organization. Even with the boost in support, however, the success of this year's Clarksville-West End Jazz and Arts Festival, which DiverseArts would like to see become more of a regional event, depends largely on the support of local music fans. In that sense, this year and every year is a pivotal one for McMillan and his tireless staff.

"I am hopeful that this season will put us back in the place where I thought we were two or three years ago," says McMillan, "when we're growing a little bit every year and trying to put the Austin jazz scene out there on the map as a desirable place for touring acts to come through as well as a place that players, who might end up in Austin, will have enough of a community that we won't continue to be a one-jazz-club town." -- Raoul Hernandez

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