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Jazz Festival dropped

Mellon ends annual June show to focus on year-round programs

Friday, February 07, 2003

By Nate Guidry, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

The annual June jam that jazz fans have come to expect has drawn its final breath.

Mellon Financial Corp. announced yesterday it has discontinued the Mellon Jazz Festival, choosing instead to support music through other programs.

"It's sad to see the festival go," said Lee Nott, an English professor at Community College of Allegheny County who has attended the festivals since the early 1980s.

"My wife and I drove from Beaver to attend if there were good players. But except for the 2001 festival, they haven't been that good the last few years. Hopefully another institution can come in and fill that void."

Starting in 1964 as the Pittsburgh Jazz Festival, it later became the Kool Jazz Festival and finally the Mellon Jazz Festival in the mid-'80s. Over the years, the festival has featured some of jazz's greatest performers, including Ella Fitzgerald, Sonny Rollins and John Zorn. In 2000, several thousand fans filled Point State Park to listen to a closing concert by Diana Krall.

The festival ran for as long as 11 days some years, but in recent years, Mellon had scaled it back. Last year it was just four days and Mellon eliminated performances at places like South Park, Hartwood Acres and the Gateway Clipper, as well as traditional jazz clubs.

Rose M. Cotton, a Mellon senior vice president and head of corporate affairs, said the decision to discontinue the jazz festival was rooted in a desire to focus on smaller events held throughout the year and to continue to support jazz education.

"We are taking the same level of investment and pumping up the jazz education and scholarship component to really focus on the grass-roots local approach," Cotton said.

Mellon annually sponsors the University of Pittsburgh's Pitt/Mellon Jazz Scholarship and the Pitt Jazz Seminar and Concert held every November.

Cotton wouldn't reveal how much money Mellon has invested in the jazz festivals or its year-round programming initiatives.

Mellon will continue to sponsor concerts with different organizations, including events at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, the Allegheny County Parks Department and the closing concert at the annual Three Rivers Arts Festival, she said.

Later this month, Mellon, along with the Pittsburgh Jazz Society, will host Winter JazzFest, a week-long event that will spotlight artists as diverse as trumpeter Claudio Roditi and vocalist Kevin Mahogany.

"I'm happy [Mellon] is continuing with the arts festival. They're continuing their very long commitment to our closing night," said Elizabeth Reiss, director of the arts festival. "Those nights have always been wonderful. They've always brought us well-respected musicians."

Reiss said Mellon will make a direct financial contribution to the arts festival in lieu of booking the closing act.

"It's good for us," she said. "Our programmer, Gary Hinston, is pleased that he'll have input on [which performers] we're going to pick."

Although attendance at the jazz festival had declined the past few years, Cotton said that wasn't the reason Mellon discontinued the event.

"Every year we look at our commitment to jazz and say, 'What's the right thing to do?' When we were in the planning stages late last year, I said I really would like to get back to more of a grass-roots support of the Pittsburgh scene. We're taking the same level of investment and creating more opportunities for local audiences to hear jazz all year."

Kool's first Pittsburgh festival in 1982 was a resounding success, with four sold-out concerts at Heinz Hall. But disappointing attendance in 1983 prompted sponsors to cancel the festival in 1984. Mellon stepped in and revived it.

Reacting to the announcement, Al Dowe, owner of Dowe's on Ninth, a jazz club, said the festival was important because of the energy it created for the clubs.

"I think the club owners should have their own festival," he said. "Pittsburgh is rich in jazz history and should not be without a festival. I was upset last year because we weren't included. The only solution is to have one ourselves."

"I'm going to miss it because I performed a lot," said drummer Roger Humphries, who in 1998 received the Mellon Jazz Festival honoree award.

Nate Guidry can be reached at nguidry@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3865.

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