Published in BusinessWest, Wednesday, February 16, 2022. Link to article
Ruth Griggs was having coffee with Amy Cahillane one day in 2017, when Cahillane, who had recently taken charge of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., posed a question.
“She said, ‘what do you think about the Jazz Festival?” Griggs recalled. “I said, ‘what do you mean?’”
Cahillane told Griggs that, in her interactions with people downtown, she kept getting asked questions like, “can we have the Jazz Festival back? We miss live music downtown. What happened to the festival? Can you get it back?”
Griggs had been involved in the first incarnation of the Northampton Jazz Festival, from 2011 to 2015, after returning to her hometown following a three-decade marketing career in New York City. “I went to the shows, and once they got to know I was a marketing professional, I kind of was an advisor to them. I was never on the board, but I was definitely an advisor and helped them out quite a bit, the last two years in particular.”
Then the festival went away for two years, and Cahillane was angling to get Griggs and others who had supported it in the past to bring it back to life, promising to help build stronger relationships between the festival and city leaders and boost marketing and fundraising efforts.
“Having a strong presence downtown and good relationships downtown was really important to me, and I also know all the jazz people who knew how to put on that festival, some of whom had been involved in previous festivals,” Griggs said. “So I set to work to rally some support.”
The biggest challenge at the time, she said, was not losing the event’s 501(c)(3) status, which had been achieved right before the final festival in 2015. “If you let a 501(c)(3) go without any kind of documentation to the feds or the state for three years, it’s gone. And I could not let that happen.”
So Griggs and others formed a board, pulled the festival back from the brink, and started planning for the return of the event in 2018. Oh, and that board put Griggs in charge.
It made sense — since returning from New York in 2011, she had built a marketing firm, RC Communications, that focused on small to mid-sized businesses and especially nonprofits, which are, in many ways, the lifeblood of the region. She has also been a board member with the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce for the past six years and is currently its immediate past vice president.
“I am a marketing strategist by trade, and, as such, I am good at seeing the big picture, keeping my eye on the vision and mission of an organization,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “When you combine that with my work in nonprofits over the last 15 years, that adds up to the type of experience that enables me to lead a nonprofit, which, of course, is what the Jazz Fest is at the end of the day.”
Her leadership in the chamber and her role as an entrepreneur with RC Communications have helped her build a wide network in the business community, she added.
“I also just have a knack for getting things done; I am a doer,” she went on. “Fundraising for the Jazz Fest, which is a big part of what I do, benefits from these relationships. As president of the board, I oversee all operations of the festival and keep everyone’s eye on the ball, but I have a particular focus on marketing and fundraising and community relations, with the help of Amy Cahillane.”
Within that model, she leaves the choosing and booking of the musicians and the running of the performances to five producers who serve on the board. And the model works, with the two-day October festival roaring back to life in 2018 and following that with successful outings in 2019 and 2021 as well; pandemic-disrupted 2020 saw a series of virtual performances instead.
But that success isn’t contained to the festival, or even to jazz lovers. As a two-day event held in locations scattered throughout the downtown (more on that in a bit), the event promotes the downtown corridor and boosts its businesses, making the festival’s success a true economic-development story, and Griggs a Difference Maker.
“I really care about the vitality and the economy of Northampton,” she said. “I’m hoping the Northampton Jazz Festival will continue to reaffirm and reinforce the unique entertainment value that Northampton offers.”
Taking It to the Streets
One key factor in the festival’s growing impact on downtown Northampton is a change in how it’s staged. From 2011 to 2015, it was presented in the Armory Street Parking Lot behind Thornes Marketplace. Along with the music stage was a beer tent, food vendors, a chef competition, and an art fair. It was a fun, multi-activity event, and attendees enjoyed it, Griggs said.
“What I felt was lacking was, if you were on Main Street, you had no idea anything was going on,” she explained. “It was tucked behind Thornes. It was efficient in that everything took place in one place, but there wasn’t a lot of space for an audience.”
Then, Cahillane and board member Paul Arslanian both came up with the same idea independently for the 2018 festival.
“In order to keep the cost down, which had gotten very high, and to be more all around town, they said, ‘let’s stage it in different places,’” Griggs said of the decision to schedule music acts inside downtown businesses, requiring attendees to move around to see them all.
“The idea was to get people to walk from place to place and stop in at a gallery or stop in at a restaurant or stop in at a café, and we would leave time in between shows so people could do that,” she explained. “Half the mission is supporting the economy of Northampton and bringing vibrancy back, which is what people said they wanted.”
Saturday’s slate of performances ends with the only ticketed show of the festival, a nationally known headliner at the Academy of Music. In recent years, that show has featured the Paquito D’Rivera Quintet in 2018, the Kurt Elling Quintet in 2019, and the Art Blakey Centennial Celebration in 2021, featuring five original members of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.
The model has worked well, Griggs said, although the board has talked about streamlining it by bringing the venues closer together. One thing that won’t change, however, is the Friday Jazz Strut, which features local and regional bands, including student bands, and overlapping performance schedules.
“We stage the music a half-hour apart, and every band plays for two hours,” she noted. “That definitely gets people all over town, patronizing the restaurants and breweries and cafés. And that’s important.”
Speaking of students, the festival board also supports jazz education through a program called Jazz Artists in the Schools, in which Arslanian secures jazz artists from big cities across the Northeast to workshop with local high-school jazz bands.
“It’s an incredible opportunity for students to learn from musicians who make music, who have successfully made music their life — active, performing musicians,” Griggs said.
While “the board is the Jazz Festival,” she said, noting that it’s certainly a working board with year-round responsibilities, the festival itself also pulls in dozens of young volunteers each year, and she’s been moved by the sentiments they’ve expressed.
“One said, ‘I’ll do whatever you need me to do. I’ll be a runner, whatever you need for this to run smoothly; this is important,’” she recalled. A woman who had recently moved from Brooklyn said, “when I found out that Northampton has a jazz festival, I thought, ‘wow, this is a cool down, I want to live here, this is really cool.’
“That’s important for me to hear,” Griggs noted, adding that one vocalist who took part in the Jazz Strut clamored for more involvement and is now serving on the board. That’s critically important to me,” she went on. “I want this to last. I’ve been at this now since 2017, and I’ll be darned if, when I step down, it dies. That cannot happen. I would feel I failed if that happened. It’s critically important. So we need to keep bringing in the younger players and the younger musicians and the younger people who really care about keeping it alive. I think the Jazz Festival is now, and will be, an important feather in Northampton’s cap.”
Another volunteer and musician noted the 2021 festival’s increased slate of women performers, telling Griggs that was a definite plus for such an event in Northampton. She was impressed by young jazz enthusiasts pointing that fact out. “The goal is to continue to showcase women in jazz.”
Griggs has certainly shone over the years as a woman in marketing. As noted, she worked in New York City for 30 years, marketing for dot-com firms, mutual funds, and large corporations like American Express and Coca-Cola. She and her husband actually owned a firm for eight of those years, doing mostly financial-services marketing.
“That was lucrative, but totally intangible,” she said. “I got so tired of marketing credit cards and things like that.”
Then, while taking her teenage sons on college tours, she fell in love with higher education and the idea of “marketing people.” So she segued into higher-ed marketing for Queensborough Community College in the city.
“It totally changed my life. I felt like I got a crash course in nonprofit marketing and fundraising, because I reported to Development.”
When she returned to Northampton in 2011, she carried that experience with her into her new firm, RC Communications, working with a host of nonprofits in the Valley. She was also part of the Creative, a marketing enterprise she formed with Janice Beetle and Maureen Scanlon.
“But I was getting so involved in the chamber and the Jazz Festival, I felt like I needed to pull back and be semi-retired,” she told BusinessWest. While she still works with a few long-time clients, the rest of her time is split between the Jazz Festival, the chamber, her role chairing the investment committee at Edwards Church, and also Valley Jazz Voices, a group, formed in 2015, of 30 vocalists who sing exclusively jazz throughout region. “I just have so many initiatives I’m doing in the community, I just feel fortunate that I can spend more time doing them.”
She sees a symbiosis in these roles, just as she does between the Jazz Festival and the downtown environment it lifts up, and gets a lift from in return.
“The relationships I’ve made in the chamber are helpful to my business, and also helpful to the Jazz Festival, which is, in turn, helpful to the town. It’s a complete full circle.”
And a full life, one with the controlled, yet exciting, rhythm of a jazz performance — a life of true impact, note by note.
“I feel like I’m making a difference that people see most visibly — in the Jazz Fest — because of all the other things I do,” Griggs said. “It’s all of those things that I think make a difference together.”
As published in BusinessWest, Wednesday, February 16, 2022, by Joseph Bednar
who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Bob Fazzi
Managing Partner and Founder (retired), Fazzi Associates, Northampton
Incredible! Amazing! Inspiring! Visionary! Last weekend's Jazz Fest was absolutely a super success. I met people from throughout the Pioneer Valley and from neighboring states who were excited to be there. Different ages (so many young people), different races, different ethnic groups, different life experiences - everything we want Northampton to be.
The strategy of the Jazz Festival Board of Directors to have the various artist and groups perform in our local restaurants, churches and businesses was brilliant. The restaurant, bar and brewery owners I talked to were equally excited as were the Jazz fans in attendance. Old and new patrons coming together to enjoy incredible music while enjoying drinks and food in their establishments.
The Jazz Fest Board not only put on a sensational weekend event; they modeled what we need to do to make Northampton a more inclusive and standout community. My thanks and congratulations to the Jazz Festival Board, volunteers, Northampton businesses, performers and jazz fans who make the weekend such an outstanding success.
In the midst of all of the complaints and concerns, many legitimate, over issues with downtown, I think it is important that when something good happens, we acknowledge and celebrate it. Thanks to the success of this year's Jazz Fest, something good happened!
By Anthony Aquadro
Anthony is the 2019 marketing and development intern for the Northampton Jazz Festival. A rising senior at Connecticut College, Anthony is a psychology and economics major and is interested in advertising and media buying.
Camille Thurman started playing the saxophone when she was 15, but it wasn’t until she was in her 20’s that Camille began adding jazz singing to her talents. Initially she started working with various bands in New York City and eventually earned the saxophone chair, working regularly with several notable band leaders and projects in New York (Nicholas Payton, Charlie Persip, Valerie Ponomarev).
Over time, she started her own band along with drummer Darrell Green. One day while touring in Africa with American Music Abroad, a program of the United States Department of State, she received a phone call at 3 o’clock in the morning from the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra inviting her to play with them.
Initially shocked that they called her, Camille knew she had a life-changing decision to make. She discussed the offer with her mentors who urged her to take the gig.
Camille has not only worked with the Jazz at Lincoln Center orchestra but has also worked with many jazz and R&B icons, including Wynton Marsalis, George Coleman, and Alicia Keys. Downbeat Magazine has named her a “rising star,” and her rich sound on tenor sax has led others to compare her to greats such as Joe Henderson and Dexter Gordon.
Camille now lives in the New York City area and plays across the globe, continuing to amaze audiences with her vocal and saxophone performances. On May 20, her audience was students at John F. Kennedy Middle School in Northampton; she offered them her skill and knowledge and a performance.
Camille’s visit came as part of the Jazz Artists in the Schools program. For the past year, the Northampton Jazz Festival has been working with Northampton public schools to bring professional jazz musicians in to workshops and clinics. Leaders of the program say it gives young musicians a unique opportunity to learn from and work with acclaimed professionals.
After listening to Camille perform for five to 10 minutes, the students erupted in applause. They then showcased their own talents, performing “Route 66” for her. For the remainder of the 75 minutes they had together, Camille eagerly reinforced that students should focus on three things while playing: the director, the rhythm, and tonal changes. She broke the band into three groups according to the instrument each played—the rhythm and horn sections, and the male vocalist—in order to focus on the improvements needed in each.
Camille explained to the rhythm section—two bass guitarists, a pianist, and a drummer—that in order to be the backbone of the band, they have to consistently keep time together while also watching the director for changes in the song. She directed the trumpet and saxophone players to emphasize dynamics and articulation. She added, “When the singer finishes his or her part in the song, you have to play the shout course as if it is the band’s turn to have their moment in the arrangement.”
“What does the singer do?” Camille asked the class. She then explained that the singer tells the story, and that each section tells the story in a different way. Camille encouraged the school band’s vocalist to add his own flair in telling the story of “Route 66.”
Camille led the group with seeming ease, quickly forming a good rapport with the students. As she worked with each section of the band, the other young musicians listened attentively, nodding their heads in agreement when Camille spoke to them. It was clear she commanded their respect.
The Jazz program at JFK Middle School has grown considerably under the direction of Claire-anne Williams. Starting with 15 students when it was created 13 years ago, the program now consists of 50 students and two separate bands under Williams’ direction.
Camille is the last guest artist the students will work with through the Jazz Artists in the Schools program until mid November at JFK and then at Northampton High School on December 2-3 with trombonist and educator Steve Davis.
For more information or to make a donation to the Jazz Artists in the Schools program, visit northamptonjazzfest.org.