The brilliant anthropologist Margaret Mead said it first and said it best: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
And while the founders of the Coastal Jazz and Blues Society—most importantly artistic director Ken Pickering, who announced his retirement in December of 2017, and media director John Orysik, who continues in his job—might not have effected any earth-shattering political changes, they have subtly and steadily improved musical life in this city. Their reach has extended beyond Vancouver, too: their steadfast commitment to exporting local talent has strengthened an international underground of fearless musicians, while their ability to balance the needs of commerce with artistic integrity has been a model for successful festivals across the country and indeed around the globe. So before the 33rd TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival opens its doors on June 22, let’s take a moment to thank Pickering, in particular, for his expansive vision—and to meet Rainbow Robert, Coastal’s new managing director for artistic programming.
After apprenticing with Pickering for most of her adult life, followed by a year at the helm of the small but critically lauded Guelph Jazz Festival, she’s ready for the task, grateful for the opportunity, and quick to praise her mentor’s generosity of spirit.
“That’s one of the values that Ken brought to this organization that will really carry forward into the future—like that ‘Yes!’ mentality,” she tells the Straight, on the line from Coastal’s Mount Pleasant offices. “And it’s a beautiful word that you’ve chosen, generosity, because that generosity is really there.
“I think it stems from honesty and commitment,” she continues, citing Pickering’s love for all forms of jazz and his “deep respect” for artists and audiences alike. “Finding ways to bring together the most sublime and the most extreme forms of music all within one festival is one of the things that I think he’s really just knocked out of the park. He’s set up a beautiful legacy for music in the city.”
He’s also left behind a structure in which Robert will be assisted by a curatorial team that also includes Pugs and Crows guitarist Cole Schmidt, who’s been involved in booking a number of under-the-radar improv series in town, and saxophonist Cory Weeds, who runs the Cellar Live record label and books Frankie’s Jazz Club on a year-round basis.
“Each of us has an in-depth knowledge of and commitment to serving different facets of the music,” Robert says. “For example, Cole and I are interested in a lot of the more heretical forms, where the free jazz and the beautiful, irreverent work comes into play, and how that intersects with punk rock and metal.”
In contrast, Weeds “has this deep, incredible connection to the more classic forms of jazz—the continuum of jazz from the very beginning,” she says. “That’s what makes Cory live and breathe.…So while Cole and I are working on these other pieces of the program, he’s putting together a very focused body of work at Frankie’s and [festival venue] Pyatt Hall.”
As for the challenge that faces every local arts organization, attracting a younger audience, Robert explains that she plans to continue with the word-of-mouth approach that served the jazz festival well in the beginning—only using social media to extend the reach of Coastal’s thoughtful, committed citizens.
“Being super genuine,” she says, is the key to attracting younger listeners who might not realize that improvised music is a real alternative to corporate entertainments. “I, personally, am very careful in my own communication to talk about stuff that I’m genuinely, personally, completely inspired by. It’s super important that each of us, as programmers for the society, are speaking to the people that we’re coming into contact with about that which truly drives our commitment to the music. Not just to say ‘Hey, we’ve got this big festival with all of these things,’ but to speak in a genuine way to what we’re most excited about.”
As for what she’s most excited about, Robert doesn’t hesitate to cite Philadelphia’s Camae Ayewa, who performs under the moniker Moor Mother. “Her work is absolutely shocking,” she explains. “She’s coming out of the outrage of an urban American environment as it relates to the African diaspora, and she is kind of channelling rage into love. I’ve seen many really sublime solo laptop artists, but her work was incredibly visceral. You could feel what she was feeling, and it was really quite terrifying—but also strangely uplifting at moments. So to see a young woman evoking that kind of response, performing on her own with a laptop, that’s one of the things that I’m incredibly excited to see here in town.”
The TD Vancouver International Jazz Festival runs at various Lower Mainland venues from next Friday (June 22) to July 1. For a full schedule, visit www.coastaljazz.ca/.