April 26, 2008
A Jazz Lifeline to Academia Is Severed
By BEN RATLIFF
Over the last week, the jazz world has been reeling from the announcement that the International Association of Jazz Educators, a de facto trade organization, is going out of business.
In an e-mail message sent on April 18, the 10,000-member organization, based in Manhattan, Kan., announced that its executive board had decided to file for bankruptcy and that its annual convention, which was to be held in Seattle next year, had been canceled.
The group’s demise is a major disappointment to jazz’s international network of professionals — educators, musicians, promoters, music publishers, critics, historians — who have few other occasions to meet, conduct business face to face or have their music exposed to a discerning public. The conferences offered hundreds of workshops, panel discussions and performances by top musicians and far-flung university big bands.
At root, the annual convention — which alternates between New York and other locations — was a demonstration of jazz’s lifeline to academia: its reliance on students and instructors in the flourishing world of jazz education to keep the music circulating, program it for live performances on the university circuit and create its next generation of audiences.
“The conference was an indispensable networking opportunity,” said Mitchell Feldman, who runs a jazz publicity and radio promotion business and is one of the thousands who attend the event every year.
Russell Thomas Jr., a professor and director of jazz ensembles at Jackson State University in Jackson, Miss., said, “It gave the students a chance to hone their skill and see outstanding musicians that they wouldn’t see otherwise.” After meeting musicians like Donald Byrd, Jimmy Heath and Jackie McLean, he said, he found it easier to recruit them for clinics and concerts.
Not all the conventions have been well attended. Despite a poor turnout in Toronto in 2003, the group’s annual event returned there in January, and attendance was down by 40 percent from the previous year, according to last week’s e-mail message. Not long after that, Bill McFarlin, the organization’s executive director for 24 years, left for another job.
As word of the organization’s bankruptcy, a Chapter 7 liquidation, traveled throughout the jazz world, the reaction was mixed. Some had heard reports of overspending and had long felt that the organization’s ambitions were too big for its means. Still, many people seemed stunned by the speed and finality of its implosion.
In early April, Chuck Owen, the president of the organization’s board, sent an e-mail message to the organization’s members, asking them each to pay $25 to help cover debts. That fund drive produced $12,000, according to the group’s recent message, but the debt was “in the million-dollar range,” said Alan Bergman, its legal counsel.
The organization’s most recent available financial records, from 2005-6, show a deficit of $90,000, although two years earlier its revenues were in the black. The group also published a bimonthly magazine, Jazz Education Journal, but it depended almost solely on the conventions to cover its operating costs.
Last year’s convention, held in Manhattan, attracted nearly 8,000 attendees and vendors, many of them paying a $250 registration fee. But the event moved back to Toronto this year, Mr. McFarlin said in an interview last week, because the hotels and convention center that housed it could write off the penalties owed from the poor performance of the convention there in 2003. This year, he said, the combination of the weak American dollar and expensive air fares dissuaded attendance and brought down the association.
People within the group also point to its failed fund-raising efforts as a major reason for its implosion. It had sought to create an endowment — “a war chest for jazz,” Mr. McFarlin called it — with the Campaign for Jazz, a drive begun in 2006 whose costs, Mr. Owen said, “greatly exceeded the cash that was received.” It sought to raise $8 million to $13 million, but far less than that was pledged, and some of the money — including $1 million promised by a Los Angeles entrepreneur — never materialized.
There has been speculation since the April 18 announcement, on Web sites and blogs, that Mr. McFarlin had stepped down because he knew that the association was on the verge of collapse. He denied this, explaining that he left because he “needed a break” after 20 years of service.
“If I had known,” he said, “I would have tried to stay and work fervently to try and sustain the organization. It was our life’s work.”
The cause of the crisis, said Laura Johnson, a board member and treasurer for the last two years, was “the accumulation of the debt incurred by the campaign” and the last conference. “We hadn’t realized early enough just how striking that amount was. We knew that there was a h*** there, but we had no idea it was the size that it was.”
Ricky Schultz, a former record executive, current jazz industry consultant and longtime member, said, “It was absolutely shocking to see this well-established organization that had a lot of support just pull the plug.” He added, “A million dollars in red ink is not a crazy, insurmountable amount of money.”
The group’s board filed for Chapter 7 bankruptcy, Mr. Bergman said, “because we have outstanding obligations which we do not have money to pay, and we’ll probably be sued by creditors.” He added that “if someone were to come along and give money, it might still be possible to convert to Chapter 11.”
The prominent jazz composer Maria Schneider said, “The old jazz culture doesn’t exist anymore,” adding that jazz is dependent on “educational institutions, for better or worse.” In her own case, Ms. Schneider’s career was given a major boost when she won a prize commission from the group in the early 1990s and played the work at the conference. That performance resulted in residencies and clinics at schools, as well as greater industry and critical recognition.
“The saddest part about this,” Ms. Schneider said, “is that for a lot of young musicians, the I.A.J.E. conference is a place where they perform to professionals in the audience. You hear some kid get up and take a solo, and you say, ‘Oh, my God, who’s that?’ ”