The National Black Arts Festival is all about jazz this year as a new organizational direction, and a commitment to offering “artistically world class” programming, have set the 25-year program on a new path, according to Sonya Halpern, chair of the NBAF board of directors.
The NBAF will present Wynton Marsalis with the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra on July 25 at Symphony Hall; the Heath Brothers Quartet plus Jeremy Pelt on August 23 at the Rialto Center for the Arts; the Jason Marsalis Vibes Quartet on September 11 at the Rialto; and the Marcus Roberts Trio on September 18 at Center Stage.
Additional music programming includes the NBAF Gala, on July 19; August 16’s “A Celebration of Music on Film” at the Woodruff Arts Center; and a performance by Third World and Maxi Priest August 17 at the Tabernacle. For the full lineup of dance, theater, visual arts, film and music events, visit the NBAF website.
To carve out a new path forward for the summer-long event, Halpern and the board have instituted a Spotlight Series that will highlight one particular discipline of the NBAF’s focus — dance, theater, visual arts, film or music — by having a guest curator pick a range of concerts to be presented throughout the season. The series is part of the organization’s strategic plan, which will take them through the 2017 season.
The strategic vision, Halpern says, has its focus on creating a financially sound event that encourages arts education, partners with arts organizations around the nation and has a governance body that can support the organization. To help achieve the last goal, the board recruited six new members in 2013 and will create two separate leadership councils geared toward corporate support and engaging national arts groups.
“One of the primary drivers in terms of arts organizations being sustainable through time is that you have strong programming,” she says. “There’s this cycle that says great programming, great marketing leads to fundraising, and it just keeps repeating itself. For us, our ambitions and priorities are to be doing more high-profile, high-impact programming; that will, in turn, drive more interest in the work that we’re doing.”
For the inaugural Spotlight Series, NBAF officials chose trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who was then given free reign to program four concerts. Halpern says Marsalis didn’t necessarily have to pick all jazz players — “We just wanted to tap an incredible artist and see that discipline through their lens and their perspective,” she says — but that’s the direction he went. Halpern adds that the NBAF board did not try to steer his choices toward a particular artist, and the only caveats for Marsalis’ choices were that the artist had to be available and within budget.
“We chose Wynton because he is a master artist, and he is doing amazing things and his contributions to the field are substantial and worthy of note,” Halpern says. “It’s not so much that we made a very specific decision that we were going jazz; we really were looking at the artist.”
Halpern explains that as the NBAF continues to expand, the four concerts programmed by the guest curator will also grow. It also stands to reason that curators in different disciplines will program more artists.
“As we were thinking about the work that NBAF does, we realized that every year, we’re tackling so much,” she says. “But by creating a spotlight or special emphasis on one discipline each year, it actually would allow us to go a little bit deeper into that discipline.”
With Marsalis as the first curator, the NBAF gets a musician who is very clear about what music is and isn’t. These beliefs aren’t necessarily a bad thing; when I’ve been to music programming by the NBAF in the past, the concerts seemed a bit disjointed.
With jazz masters getting older and older, the Heath Brothers — Jimmy on tenor and Albert “Tootie” Heath on drums — are an exceptional connection to the history of the music; drummer-turned-vibraphonist Jason Marsalis is the youngest of the Marsalis brothers, and brings with his band bassist Will Goble, who was once deemed an Atlanta Young Lion before he moved away from the city. Pianist Marcus Roberts is a long-time Marsalis compatriot who came to national attention as a member of the trumpeter’s band.
Wynton Marsalis has a deep history with the National Black Arts Festival. The organization commissioned a multimovement symphonic work from the trumpeter for the 2008 season, but after two delays, only two of the seven movements were performed by the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in November 2009. Marsalis’ “Blues Symphony”: Symphony No. 2 had its most complete performance in 2010, when the ASO performed five movements at Morehouse College for the annual event “A King Celebration.”
Marsalis’ band’s connection to Atlanta — a number of the musicians have ties to the city — has also brought the orchestra through a number of times in recent memory. (I reviewed a 2010 performance at Symphony Hall.)
Part of the NBAF’s new focus on generating more excitement with better-known talent means that the organization’s expenses have increased. Halpern says the organization’s previous model, which strove to hit a goal of 75 percent free programming in order to attract as much community support as possible, isn’t achievable if the organization also wants to expand artistically. She adds, though, that the NBAF continues to have strong corporate support and a significant amount of support from the city through grants via the Office of Cultural Affairs.
“Being accessible is very important to us — that whole idea around family and community, it’s always been one of our primary tent poles,” she explains. “There will be some things that we do that are free, but it won’t be that the bulk of what we’re doing is free.”
This year’s NBAF event starts what Halpern hopes will be a successful path forward for the festival. She’s quick to note, however, that this new strategy is not a test case; the Spotlight Series, the move toward a stable funding model and the expanded board — these are not ideas that are being instituted on a trial basis.
“We’re not testing the theory,” she says. “We’re embarking on the vision.”