The Austin Chronicle

10th Annual Austin Jazz & Arts Festival

June 12, 1998, Music

Harry McMillan (center) and the DiverseArts staff.

photograph by John Carrico

When the 10th Annual Austin Jazz & Arts Festival convenes this weekend in Waterloo Park for two days' worth of local and national jazz, it will be a far cry from the local festival's maiden year.

"The first year was on West Sixth Street in a parking lot that doesn't exist anymore," says Harold McMillan, the festival's producer. "That would be the parking lot behind Wiggy's liquor store - where Swedish Hill's new store is. We did the first two years there."

Featuring talent such as Grey Ghost, Susanna Sharpe, and Abra Moore, The Clarksville-West End Jazz & Arts Festival, as it was known up until this year, ran just two days, was a non-profit endeavor, had a budget of $6,000-7,000, and counted McMillan as most of its staff. A decade later, McMillan has an actual volunteer crew working out of the offices of his production company, DiverseArts, a budget of $50,000, and eight full days of programming. The festival is still nonprofit. The question is obvious.

"I assumed from the beginning, after I had done it a year, that yeah, I'd get here to 10 years," says McMillan. "At that time, I was telling people that I expected this festival to outlive me - in some evolved permutation down the road. And I expected it would be easier running than it has been."

That's one thing that hasn't changed, as it turns out, getting people to go out and experience jazz. Not only has it been a struggle getting people in the seats (or park, as the case may be), it's been an uphill battle for DiverseArts to find corporate sponsors to offset some of the festival's costs. In the past few years, the city itself has finally put some money where its slogan is, but the mostly clueless Austin Visitors & Convention Bureau has done nothing to help a festival that has never been the quagmire known as AquaFest.

Ever thought of not putting on the festival?

"That first year was encouraging enough that I came back and kept doing it," says McMillan, laughing. "We didn't make any money, but then again we didn't have the level of potential risk and debt that has evolved with the show. It was successful enough for me to think that I was on to something good, and that if I could just hang in there for 2-3 years, the community would agree, `This is a really cool thing, and we're gonna help this guy find some underwriting for these things.'"

Unfortunately, McMillan has learned the hard way that Austin isn't as forthcoming with its corporate dollars as bigger Texas metropoli like Dallas, Houston, and San Antonio. Instead, every year is a struggle. And yet, for year 10, the festival finds itself stronger than ever before.

"Developmentally, what I'd like to do with this festival is for it to be a good jazz festival that has a connection with the larger world of jazz," posits McMillan. "This local jazz scene needs regular infusions of talent and ideas from the outside world."

Still think this festival will outlive you?

"I hesitate in answering that, because part of what my organization is doing, and part of what I'm doing personally as a cultural worker here in town, is trying to check the pulse of this scene. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and the thing that is the most clear of this 10 years of learning is that in order for a project like this to keep going, it has to spread out some more from just my head. It has to involve some more people. It has to involve some different areas of the community, including the business community and city government, and the Convention & Visitors Bureau.

"If those people come to the table and look into the future, there's a very nice thing here that can continue and grow for years, and yeah, outlive me." - Raoul Hernandez

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