.Rolling on the River

Don't get the blues, but who will buy all that jazz?

At last: Blues singer Etta James, discovered by Sebastopol’s Johnny Otis and managed by Jazz on the River owner Lupe de Leon, is a Russian River festival regular.

By Lois Pearlman

Guerneville’s 30-year-old jazz festival is on sale for $50,000, and the buyer gets a blues festival as a bonus.

Recovering from several years of health problems, Jazz on the River festival owner Lupe De Leon believes it’s time for somebody else to take over his annual events, says partner Meredith Melville.

Everyone who loves jazz or depends upon the Russian River tourist trade for a livelihood is hoping there will be a successful buyer.

Businesspeople on the lower Russian River hope to see the two festivals continue, since they draw thousands of tourists to the area, some for a week or more. Russian River Chamber of Commerce director Dawn Bell says she’s already fielding questions about the dates for the 2007 festivals, and local innkeepers are getting inquiries about room bookings. The Russian River Blues Festival typically takes place in June; Jazz on the River, in mid-September.

Food consultant and promoter Clark Wolf who, like De Leon, lives part-time in Guerneville, is performing his civic duty by attempting to facilitate the sale of the festivals. He says two groups have already expressed serious interest. One of the groups is local; the other is from elsewhere “in the region,” and they both have the expertise to succeed, according to Wolf. They may even be open to collaborating, Wolf suggests, but he isn’t willing to say any more.

Jazz on the River (originally known as the Russian River Jazz Festival) began three decades ago as a locally produced event aimed at boosting the tourist economy. When a 1976 drought preempted Guerneville’s annual Fire Mountain Pageant, barber and musician Clive Hawthorne proposed a jazz festival to replace it. Sonoma County supervisors granted the Russian River Chamber of Commerce $10,000 to make it happen.

With trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie as the main attraction, the first Russian River Jazz Festival brought some 3,000 music lovers to Guerneville’s Johnson’s Beach. According to news reports of the time, it was an artistic–though not a financial–success.

For several years, a committee of locals ran the festival, eventually hiring a succession of paid directors. Over the years, the festival has featured such luminaries as Count Basie, Carmen McCray and Etta James, filling out the two-day bill with lesser-known performers, including area musicians like drummer Benny Barth and pianist Bob Lucas.

Lucas has passed on, but Barth, who lives in Monte Rio and is mostly retired, performed at the festival as recently as 2005. That year, he played on the stage of the winetasting garden with his trio. A jazz purist, Barth bemoans what he describes as an adulteration of the festival by jazz fusion, smooth jazz and even some rock and roll. Still, audiences keep coming back for more. Melville says that the last day of the 2006 festival drew some 5,000 people.

De Leon, a musician’s talent agent, was on the board of directors of the jazz festival for many years. When the organization added a blues festival in 1996 and then decided to discontinue it three years later, he bought the rights to do it on his own.

In 2002, he also took over the jazz festival, but since he did not gain legal title to the name at that time, he called it Jazz on the River. According to Melville, she and De Leon purchased the original name last year.

What a new owner will get for his or her $50,000 are the names of the festivals, the events’ websites, a 14,000-person mailing list, hundreds of vendor contacts, such infrastructure as canopies and tables, and help putting it together for the first year or so.

“That’s what we’re selling, the name,” Melville says.

A new owner could also inherit the disdain some in the local community feel for the two annual events, which tend to jam the town’s roads and parking spaces, leaving little room for residents and other visitors. Some merchants have complained that jazz and blues festival audiences are too busy to spend money in area shops, and make it difficult for others to do so, as well.

But Wolf says that times have changed and there are new avenues through which the community will be able to work cooperatively with whoever purchases the festivals.

“People have been pulling me aside and saying things,” Wolf says. “One thing they have said is that the community needs to be more involved in good ways.”

Wolf, who with his partner Scott Mitchell spearheads the annual Russian River Food and Winefest, envisions that the jazz and blues festivals could become green events. He notes that the local EcoRing organization, which promotes ecological tourism on the river, could help. Wolf also suggests that local businesses could profit from the festival by staging a weeklong series of related events, and that traffic congestion could be kept to a minimum with cooperative planning.

But for now, it all remains in limbo. Melville says nothing will happen for at least a week or so while De Leon recuperates from his recent heart transplant.

“Everything’s on hold,” she says. “There’s a lot of interest. I’m taking information and having short conversations with people.”

Although Melville and De Leon would normally begin organizing the festivals this month, Melville suggests there would still be time for a new owner to make them happen for 2007, even if they start a few months later.


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