Kevin Lechler, the assistant executive director of the Denton Festival Foundation, said the Denton Arts & Jazz Festival board spent this week reconfiguring part of its program after the University of North Texas Division of Brand Strategy and Communications sent leaders an email saying they weren’t able to sponsor a popular stage.
The festival will be Oct. 1-3.
“This was a major loss,” Lechler said. “Yes, losing the money is hard. But the bigger loss is the partnership with UNT. That’s the real blow for us.”
The university paid $15,000 for the annual sponsorship. The UNT Showcase Stage was one of the most popular attractions at the free festival, attracting thousands to watch student ensembles from one of the country’s best collegiate jazz programs.
Lechler joined the foundation’s small staff in 2004, and the festival and UNT sponsorship was forged shortly after he was hired.
The sponsorship allowed the foundation to rent the stage, the lighting and the audio connections for the space where the student ensembles perform.
“Without their support, we can’t afford to provide that,” Lechler said. “We’re a nonprofit, and in a post-pandemic world, we’re struggling to have enough money to have the event. We pay for six of those stages. The only stage we don’t have to pay for is the amphitheater in the park. But we still pay technicians to work that stage.”
Earlier this week, John W. Richmond, dean of the UNT College of Music, said the college is very much open to participating in this year’s festival, though at a reduced capacity. The foundation board decided to postpone the festival from April to October because the availability of vaccinations would make attendees and performers safer. The event packs Quakertown Park, especially on Saturday and Sunday.
Richmond said the October date means most of the student ensembles aren’t ready for concerts because they’ve only been rehearsing for three weeks. At an April festival, the students have been developing their skills and their musical repertoire.
“To me it makes more sense that they won’t have the acts,” Lechler said.
Alan Baylock, the director of the university’s premier and Grammy-nominated jazz band, said the turn of events is a blow for student musicians as well as attendees.
“First of all, for the community, it is a place for folks to hear the breadth and the depth of the jazz studies division,” he said. “It’s a chance for people to hear so many student ensembles, too. Guitar ensembles, piano ensembles, wind ensembles. It’s all out there, it’s outside. We have great things happening on campus, too, which we don’t want people to forget about.”
Baylock said the festival is good for recruitment and retention for the college.
“As far as the students, it’s a really special experience, and it’s something alums come back to,” Baylock said.
On the Saturday of the festival, the UNT Showcase Stage typically would start with the Nine O’clock Lab Band and then bring the One O’clock Lab Band onstage. The evening would end with the Latin Jazz Ensemble performing for an enthusiastic audience.
“By that time, people are up and dancing. It’s really special,” Baylock said.
Baylock also said the university’s decision to pull its festival sponsorship isn’t an indication of a lack of support from UNT and College of Music leadership.
“I have 100 percent trust in our university president [Neal Smatresk], our dean and our provost [Jennifer Cowley],” he said. “When the One O’clock took a trip to New York to play with [jazz composer and trumpeter] Wynton Marsalis, President Smatresk, Provost Cowley and Dean Richmond traveled with us. And not just because it was a fun trip, but because they are very supportive of our program. There were nine other university bands there. And there was only one other dean there. We definitely feel loved and supported.”
So far, UNT officials and Lechler said they are willing to come together and talk about how to include the College of Music in this year’s program and beyond, but no conversation was planned as of Friday.
“I know we are very interested in preserving this partnership,” Lechler said.
While the foundation board has discussed staging the Arts & Jazz Festival in October in the future, Lechler said no decision has been made.
“In a post-pandemic world, it’s really tough to make an event like this happen,” he said, insisting that the foundation is committed to keeping the festival a free event. “Our sponsors have been so supportive, helping us produce a full festival in October. I won’t lie. Turning around and asking those same sponsors to help us produce a full festival six months later? It’s scary.”
Lechler said the foundation has gotten some donations since news of the sponsorship cancellation broke. To help support the festival, fans can donate or buy merchandise made for the canceled 2020 event at dentonjazzfest.com.