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A Q&A With Richmond Jazz Fest Founder Ken Johnson


The Richmond Jazz Festival is mostly attributable to Kenneth Johnson, the chief executive of local marketing company JMI. While he prefers to stay behind the scenes, he agreed to a telephone interview with Style Weekly. The transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Style Weekly: How did you get the idea for the event?

Kenneth Johnson: The other outdoor events are fantastic, but I thought there was an opportunity in a beautiful place like Maymont. It's just a great setting.

Richmond is perfect for a festival. It's a great arts community. I thought it would be cool if we had a music festival where people could hear some of the great names without traveling to DC or Tidewater. Jazz is great because it can be almost anything. It pulls people together from all walks of life. Every modern hip-hop artist has sampled more jazz musicians than anything else. That is one of the great things about this year's festival. We have legends like Frankie Beverly, Parliament, Gladys Knight, the O'Jays, and we have rappers like Eric B. and Warren G. who sampled their music. Gladys Knight is Joss Stone's favorite singer, and she gets to perform right before her.

How do you select the artists?

People who know me will all laugh when I give you this response. I listen very well. I listen to the agents I talk to, to my friends, to the music on NPR., to hip-hop. I am very much a feel person, and if someone connects with me, and I am a complicated individual, I feel like they will connect with others. For example, when I saw someone like Kamasi Washington four or five years ago on Tiny Desk Concert, who has a depth to who they are, that is the guy to book.

How do you identify up-and-coming players like Washington and Robert Glasper before they are well-known?

You also look to see who other artists admire. When an established artist has someone they recommend, I will listen to them. Other times I am just listening on someone's back porch and wonder "who is that?" That's what happened with Butterscotch. I made a mental note, had my folks look her up, and found out she'd never come to the East Coast before to perform.

Is there anyone you have wanted to get but couldn't?

We've tried for the last five years to get Sade. We've worked really hard to get Bill Withers and Outkast. One of my big dreams was to do a concert with the symphony and hip-hop artists on the Lee Bridge. Last year we were able to get Common and the symphony, which was close, but not quite.

Each of the nine years of the festival seems to have a slightly different concept. Is that intentional?

We work hard for it to have a personality every year. This year it's about the legends. But also, we have some new artists in the straight-ahead section, like Christian Sands, who is an incredible pianist. And we have Nicholas Payton. If you know your jazz, you will be all over those guys.

How many people are involved in putting on the festival?

From one perspective, there are the 22 people that work for JMI, and out of that, there are six that really focus in on the festival year-round. Then there is Katy Riley, who is my event producer. There is a group of young people, at least 20-25, who interned for us, graduated from college, and come back every year to work the festival. It's great that we built that type of camaraderie.

We couldn't do it without Altria, they had the same vision I had, they and Dominion were the first to step up and stand behind us. That's not a plug, it's just been a great relationship.

While it takes a team to pull it off, everyone I talk to says the Jazz Festival is kind of your baby.

[Laughs] I will admit to that. I can take all the credit for the bad weather, the good weather and the event itself.

How do you define success for the festival?

If there is a purpose behind this festival it is getting out diverse people with diverse mind-sets. We don't need 20,000 people for the festival to be great. If the people come out and have a great time, and the performers get on and off stage on time, and everybody gets home safe, that's successful. We have lost our shirts some years when it rains. We take it as it comes, and we are very blessed. S