Barring a dramatic rescue, the Hartford International Jazz Festival, the annual Columbus Day Weekend bash that for seven years has filled downtown bars and restaurants with the sound of jazz, will end on a sad note.
Domingo Guerra, the sparkplug producer of the festival, which brought world-class jazz luminaries to the capital city, has decided to bow out of the Octoberfest that he created and ran with his partner, J. Sarah Posner.
Believers in Hartford as "New England's Rising Star" and in jazz as a revitalizing force for downtown's economy, Guerra, a salesman, and Posner, an attorney, launched the festival with hopes that it would eventually gain enough popular momentum and financial support to become Hartford's version of the Newport Jazz Festival.
Despite some relatively bright financial moments and consistent critical acclaim, their hopes for crowds and financial backing never materialized. And with the economy tanking and last October's festival turnout a disappointment, Guerra's and Posner's dreams aren't merely deferred as in years past, but are now abandoned. They are leaving Hartford.
"We're out of this," said Guerra, who along with Posner tapped personal funds to keep the festival afloat.
Discouraged and disillusioned well before her partner, Posner stepped down a year ago as executive director, leaving that job to Guerra, who was already artistic director.
"We expected a really good turnout this October because every year since we started this thing seven years ago the audience has been increasing, with more and more people coming from out of state," Guerra said. "But this year something really curious happened. We're like back to where we started seven years ago with very small audiences, even though we spent a lot of money this year bringing in great music," he said. Modeled after the Guinness Jazz Festival in Cork, Ireland, Hartford's featured headline acts at main-stage venues, plus post-concert live jazz in downtown bars and restaurants. The idea was to draw people into the city not just for the usual one-stop concert event, but also to persuade them to remain in town for the evening.
Guerra and Posner believed their festival, like Cork's, would generate not just post-concert trade in the clubs, but also energize the city's nighttime civic spirit.
They envisioned a culturally dynamic Hartford, with pedestrians strolling from club to club, a contemporary version of New York's 1940s and early '50s fabled, jazz-fueled 52nd Street.
A deciding moment for Guerra occurred this October at a concert featuring three famous Miles Davis alumni — Badal Roy, Dave Liebman and Michael Henderson — that he had labored long and hard to set up.
"I'm looking around the room and there are very few people there, even though this is a lineup that will never be back in Hartford again," Guerra says. "I'm thinking, 'Why am I doing this? This is embarrassing that these great musicians come to Hartford to perform, and this is the turnout?' I decided then that I needed to think about myself and my career." He leaves for Baltimore this month.
Adding injury to insult, the 2008 festival ended up about $3,000 to $4,000 in the red, Guerra said, "so it comes right out of our pockets."
Right from the first festival, despite support from the Greater Hartford Arts Council, the partners wound up kicking in personal funds of $10,000. In the second year, things got a bit better, Guerra said, and the festival was in the red for $1,000.
"But we could see the audience building and the thing really starting to click then with more corporations giving us support." By the third festival, HIJF was in the black, "with maybe $800 in the bank after all the bills were paid," he said.
Besides grants and sometimes even modest donations from private individuals, the festival several years ago enjoyed a big boost when it teamed up with Asylum Hill Congregational Church, which agreed to let its big-name Friday night opener for its own distinguished music series be the opener for the festival as well.
What kept the idealistic couple going, despite the festivals' frustrations, Guerra said, "was purely our love of the city."
"We were both very supportive of downtown Hartford, and decided that if things were going to start happening downtown and the revitalization of downtown Hartford was actually going to become a reality, we wanted to be involved. We just didn't want to stand around," he said.
However, keeping the festival going became a full-time job for Guerra, who already had a paying full-time job.
"Sarah finally told me it was time for me to focus on my own career, my real job, which I'm going to do," Guerra said. He works for an international office equipment firm and plans to move this month to Baltimore, where many of his major Northeast accounts are.
Unhappy with the way his dream project wound up, Guerra said he hopes that someone or some organization will step in and keep the festival alive in 2009.
This summer, the Hartford Jazz Society rode to the rescue of the Monday Night Jazz Series in Bushnell Park after its founder and producer, Paul Brown, announced he was stepping down. Brown, a well-known jazz bassist, decided to focus on his celebrated musical career after four decades of keeping the Monday Night series alive.
Caught by surprise by the news of the festival's demise, Hartford Jazz Society President Dan Feingold said, "I'm sorry to see Domingo is going, and my hat's off to him for getting his festival up and running and established. But really, on such short notice, I can't make any comment 'yea' or 'nay' about taking it over."
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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