BY ZIVIT SHLANK JAZZ CORRESPONDENT Philadelphia-based trombonist, composer and local jazz scene advocate Ernest Stuart is a man of ambition and passion. He’s been an in-demand fixture on the jazz, funk, R&B, neo-soul and hip hop scene for years having played with the likes of The Roots, Billy Paul, Jaguar Wright, Captain Black Big Band and Red Baarat, among others. In addition to maintaining a manic performance schedule, he released his first independent CD last year called Solitary Walker, and produces and arranges for artists including Philadelphia vocalist Chrissie Loftus. Ernest has been co-spearheading an effort that could have immeasurable positive impact on the Philly Jazz scene: the first ever Center City Jazz Festival, scheduled for this April 28th.
PHAWKER: Is it safe to say the idea for this festival was born out of frustration with the current scene?
ERNEST STUART: Yeah. It started to get going around August and I’ve been working pretty much alone. The reason why I don’t reach out often is that I can’t trust that everyone is going to see what I’m talking about. I don’t think it’s difficult to see and understand, I just think people may be too cynical to trust anyone else’s vision. Unfortunately these people who are so cynical lack vision of their own and in some instances, are the gatekeepers. And it’s like if I can’t get through the gatekeepers, then yeah it’s frustrating. After going from place to place and nothing really working out, it made me just say ‘Fine. I’ll do it on my own’.
PHAWKER: With a project of this magnitude, why did you decide to do this mostly on your own? Why not get a little help from your friends?
ERNEST STUART: From the start people kept saying ‘ you have to get help’, and I’m just like ‘it’s not that serious to me’. I don’t feel like it’s something I can’t manage. I don’t think if I was working with like 15 people that we would be in a different spot. Maybe somebody would be out in the street handing out flyers or something, but that’s not what I would want to do; I would discourage that. I’m trying to set the precedent for the festival which you can see in the video and on the website. I know people will respond favorably to a high quality festival. I feel like that would be difficult if I had a bunch of people working on this. I wanted to work alone on everything from the video to the logo but up to a certain point. When I do go to people and say ‘okay, I need you to do this’, it’ll be done up to that standard. With that being said, it’s difficult and stressful. Part of me is like ‘well if it doesn’t work out, then I’d rather have the shame and blame just fall on me’. I think my shoulders are broad enough to bear that; I wouldn’t anyone else to go through that.
PHAWKER: I know the idea of an all-jazz festival has been on the minds of many. I wonder was there some politicking initially holding you back?
ERNEST STUART: It’s interesting to me, the whole festival project. I don’t know much about Philadelphia politics, but I do know Dwight Evans isn’t around anymore. He was the one on city council funding things like the West Oak Lane festival. There’s only one official jazz club left, no strictly jazz festivals. And here we are, there’s just a little bit left standing in the way. February 23 is the deadline. It seems pretty silly to me. Maybe part of it is that not enough people know about it. When I look at the kickstarter website, I see that, like, 1/3 of the people who have “liked” the page have actually contributed. It makes me wonder why? What’s going on? These folks, much like a lot of companies, we’ve been encountering the same problem. They all agree it’s a great idea and that the city needs it, but not enough people are pulling out their checkbooks. They might offer their services, but they’re not offering money. And right now, what we need is money.
PHAWKER: There’s been much heated debate about changing the name of jazz in the hope that it will take away the stigma and attract a bigger, more diverse audience. What’s your take on that?
ERNEST: I don’t think changing the name of the music will make it more popular. If I’m an asshole and everybody is like ‘Ernest is an asshole, Ernest is an asshole’, changing my name to Bob isn’t going to make me any less of any asshole. It may make people forget for a second who I am and they might not recognize the name, but as soon as they get around me and see me again, they’ll remember. If you don’t want to be known as an asshole, you have to change how you act. The bottom line is, you have to change the content. If you want people to like the music, you have to make music that people will like. Don’t give them the same thing and put a different label on it. Some of us are obsessed with playing things the same way, and it’s not reflective of our times. Some say the nature of jazz is in fact reflective of society. That was the case, like, 50 years ago because it was always changing. I think Miles Davis’ music was a great example, but I don’t think what we’re doing today is that. Many are still playing it the same way, which is reflective of a time, but not necessarily our time. We’re focusing on the wrong thing. Some people aren’t willing to bend; they think people should appreciate this very artistic form. If you want to play standards and you want people to appreciate them for what they are, then great. However, it’s not bringing in the audiences like it used to, the clubs aren’t packed. I’ve seen this first hand. Catering to that audience has been failing miserably. Some are fine with doing the same thing and giving the appearance of art, as opposed to those playing something that is uniquely theirs; that gives the content more meaning.
PHAWKER: If the goal is reached and plans move forward on April 28th, what are the goals and hopes for the 1st annual Center City Jazz Festival?
ERNEST: This is something Philadelphia has never seen before. On April 20, the Philadelphia Art Museum is going to host the festival preview show. It’s going to feature saxophonist Korey Riker’s band and pianist George Burton’s band. These guys and their bands wouldn’t normally be on the same set. Their bands are similar in energy but not much more than that; their sounds are completely different, but that’s beautiful. That’s the festival in a nutshell: everyone has their own thing, their own sound, their own vibe and putting them all together. Getting cooperation from bands, musicians and venues before an outcome is reached is remarkable. We don’t want you to go just to impress your friends; we want you to take away the feeling of inspiration and to influence some activity. Whether it’s to buy an album, to turn on your local jazz station, to go home and have sex. Whatever the case may be, the hope of the festival is to provide an experience that will motivate you to do something. That’s the purpose of this whole thing. Even if we don’t get there, I think it’s worth losing everything to make a statement.