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The Festival Director: Terri Pontremoli

The Festival Director: Terri Pontremoli
B.D. Lenz By

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The mission has been about bringing world-class jazz to Cleveland, nurturing and fostering the art form, paying attention to its history, and doing all of this education. It has driven our work from the get-go and I think that that's what's been miraculous. —Terri Pontremoli
In this installment of Chats with Cats I caught up with Terri Pontremoli who is the Artistic/Executive Director of the Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland, in Cleveland, Ohio. Her passion and enthusiasm for the art form and her festival is evident. Our conversation comes at a very unique time and, in our discussion, Ms. Pontremoli addresses how her organization has been actively tackling the disparity of opportunities through education. I also had to get her perspective on the current and long term effects of COVID-19 on the festival business. The future is murky for everyone in the business and she gives a candid depiction of what may lie ahead.

About Terri Pontremoli

Although her formal training and early career was in classical music, violinist Terri Pontremoli grew up with an abiding love for the Great American Songbook and the music of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Duke Ellington. Seduced by the spontaneity and freedom of jazz, her career in the world of the performing arts has centered on a fierce advocacy for jazz to ensure its place in America's cultural landscape and to inform and grow its audience.

A graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Music, Terri taught at the school and free-lanced for a number of years before venturing into arts administration. In 1991, she began working for Tri-C JazzFest in Cleveland. In addition to improving the jazz eco-system in Cleveland she raised over $6 million for jazz in Northeast Ohio and elevated Tri-C JazzFest's national status through major grants from the Lila Wallace Reader's Digest Fund and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation.

Throughout her years at Tri-C (1991-2004), she remained an active freelance musician and contractor of musicians for ballet, opera and Broadway shows at Playhouse Square, the "world's largest theater restoration project" and the country's largest performing arts center outside New York City.

After leaving Tri-C JazzFest in 2004, she served as executive director for Cleveland Arts Prize and in 2005 joined the Detroit Jazz Festival (DJF) as managing director going on to serve as artistic and executive director for five years (2007-2011). Along with raised income at $2 million over six years, the national reputation of DJF grew exponentially during her tenure, with the festival consistently ranking in the top four jazz festivals in the Jazz Times Readers' Polls.

Currently, Terri is the Artistic/Executive Director of Tri-C JazzFest Cleveland.

All About Jazz: I want to start at the beginning and ask you how you got into the business of working for jazz festivals.

Terri Pontremoli: Well it's kind of interesting. I grew up listening to jazz because my father was a jazz guitarist and I always loved it. My dad also wanted my sister and I to be musicians so we were both classically-trained. I played violin, my sister played piano, and I worked as a professional violinist for years until one day I said, "you know? I really think there's something else I want to do but I'm not sure what it is." I started working in arts administration and, at the time, the Tri-C Jazz Fest had just brought on a new person. That person talked to me on the phone and decided that maybe I could do a few things. Really, I was completely green, I had never turned on a computer at that point. It took no time to see that jazz was in need of people who could raise money for it, jazz was in need of people who could write about it, jazz was in need of people who could get people excited about it.

So I dove into this work headfirst and it was wonderful. I loved it. We took the Tri-C Jazz Fest from a much smaller organization to a much bigger organization within five years. We were doing things like getting Doris Duke awards, working on an endowment, and getting corporate people in Cleveland to sponsor it. At that point the festival was like ten days with a performance in a different venue every night. It wasn't anything crazy like Rochester International Jazz Festival but it was stretched over ten days, had free things in the community, and there was always the educational stuff. The educational stuff has been extremely important to this festival. And for 41 years we have stayed true to our mission to make educational opportunities available to people of all ages and in all walks of life. It's one of the things that I'm very proud of. I feel like it's been a really great opportunity. At Tri-C we've seen so much come full circle that's it's really been thrilling.

The festival was started by a faculty member who just taught jazz history. There was no Jazz Studies program. What we started to do was to take jazz programs into the school and then we'd also have the schools come. We'd bring in some national artists and the artist would work with students from all the suburbs and all the schools. We start noticing more and more that the kids who came from the suburbs are mostly white and they were all playing instruments and the kids that were African-American were coming from the city and there weren't any music programs. It was really disheartening and glaring that these kids had no concept of how important this music is to their cultural heritage. So we went about trying to address that. We started a Saturday music program. We raised money for it and we get some seed money from a local foundation to help that.

Dominick Farinacci was one of our students. We brought the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra here to do a concert. They also came to the school and did a master class with the student big band. After the concert that night Dominick was standing outside of Wynton Marsalis's dressing room door with his trumpet. Dominick was pushed in and told to play. Wynton was wonderful. He gave Dominic a full ride to Julliard, the jazz program was in its infancy that year. It was a wonderful connection. Now, Dominick is teaching our Saturday program, he's the director. He's coaching young people the same way and that's really beautiful to see and the quality is very high. Another student that came from our program, Jerome Jennings, is teaching at Juilliard so we feel like we've created our own unique history by being able to do these programs. We started that program and a four-credit Jazz Studies program that we found the money for and support until the college finally said, "yeah, we should support this." So it became an accredited program with them.

AAJ: I'm curious how you started as a classical violinist and ended up in the jazz world because they're very different worlds aren't they?

TP: They are very different and, you know what, I have to tell you that I really love the jazz world in comparison. There is something important about my life as a freelancer too because, like I said, I grew up listening to Frank Sinatra. My dad was a jazz guitarist. I knew jazz. I loved it but I just didn't play it. But when I was freelancing I'd be playing shows like Tony Bennett, or Gladys Knight, or David Sanborn, all these different shows. That's when I started to see like, "wow, the guys who travel with these musicians are all jazz musicians. The charts are all arranged by jazz musicians." I really felt a connection to that jazz and of all that writing. So it was just the love of it. I didn't see myself wanting play in a pit until I was ninety years old. I really enjoyed playing in pits and was, basically, the contractor for Playhouse Square so when Broadway shows would come through I would hire all the musicians and play as well. So that's how I kind of got there. The jazz has always been a part of my life, it's just always been in the background

AAJ: What do you think has been the biggest key to the success of the Tri-C Jazz Festival?

TP: Well I really think the biggest thing that we have done is just remain vigilant and true to our mission. The mission has been about bringing world-class jazz to Cleveland, nurturing and fostering the art form, paying attention to its history, and doing all of this education. It has driven our work from the get-go and I think that that's what's been miraculous.

The other miraculous thing that happened was our connection to Tommy LiPuma. I saw an article in the newspaper saying that this guy is from Cleveland, I had no idea. So I said, "I think we should ask him to be a part of us in some way. Like maybe he's just an honorary board guy or something like that." Tommy would come to Cleveland whenever Diana Krall came to Cleveland so every time he came to Cleveland he and I would get together and we'd talk. Then it finally got down to where we were going to celebrate our 25th anniversary. It was still two years before that. I had John Clayton as one of my artists-in-residence and he has done so much arranging for Tommy over the years. So I was talking to John and I said, "you know, we have a 25th anniversary coming up and it seems to me we should celebrate Tommy and maybe even Horace Silver." Tommy and Horace worked together in the past. He said, "you need to tell Tommy about this idea. Just go to New York and tell Tommy. He loves you and he'll listen to you."

So I flew to New York and I said, "this is what we'd like to do." and he said, "oh man, yeah, I think I can bring David Sanborn and Joe Sample, Al Jarreau, George Benson, Diana [Krall]." Sure enough he did. The thing that's so beautiful about Tommy is that his artists love him so much. We had this star-studded weekend, two nights in a huge theater. John Clayton's big band was the centerpiece. We commissioned John to write a piece for Horace Silver, it was called "Silver Celebration." They actually recorded it and we had on that stage, Joe Sample with Brecker Brothers, Joe Lovano, Christian McBride, Little Jimmy Scott which was one of his last performances really. It wasn't much longer after that he died. We had all these wonderful people. They all played together and sang together and they didn't charge! They donated. We had to pay for flights, and hotels, and things like that, but they did it for the love of Tommy. It was the highlight of my life let alone a career. It was just awesome.

The other thing that we do, that we take very seriously, is the idea of being able to commission composers and jazz people to do things. For instance, a few years ago, we commissioned Terence Blanchard to write a piece about the Voting Rights Act. It's something that he pays a lot of attention to. He wrote this piece for a chamber orchestra, gospel choir, his quintet, and a couple spoken word things. It was phenomenal. When we brought Terence in, because the school also has a film department, he spent a lot of days coming back and forth working with the film students and the music students on film scoring. They literally had private coaching sessions with him. Again, to have that happen in a community college is pretty astonishing.

So we think it's important to make composers and jazz musicians happy and also to have them work with our local musicians and with our students. So, it's all about interaction. That is the secret behind the success. We're not a huge festival but we are a really nice festival. And just a few years ago we changed our format so that it is a summer festival, a weekend event. And even though we're teaching and doing masterclasses all year long with our artist-in-residence, it culminates at the end of June and we have about nine or ten ticketed national indoor concerts in a beautiful theater at Playhouse Square. And, outside, we have like eighteen to twenty local bands playing until midnight with people dancing under the chandelier. We even do things with the Hospitality Management Department at the school. People are cooking and we involve the musicians in some sampling and cooking demonstrations. So it's a full blown festival, over in a weekend, but it's really varied and lots of fun.

AAJ: I was reading that you left this festival to work at the Detroit Jazz Festival for a few years so I was wondering what your experience was with that and how it is different than Tri-C?

TP: So Detroit is different than anywhere in the world. Its jazz history is so friggin' deep it's just amazing. The first time that I witnessed an audience at the festival in Detroit I was like, wow, it really is stunning how informed they are. It's like there's something in the water, they all get it. Of course that is a big festival, outside, five stages, music going from noon to 11:00 at night. And all the national acts are all outside, all free. It's pretty amazing. And that's how I got the idea for indoor and outdoor because the jazz festival in Cleveland at that point was still in April and over ten days. We had more of a hybrid because it's free outside for local and regional musicians but indoors it's the national musicians.

Detroit was wonderful. I loved my experience there and I really learned a lot. But what is interesting is that the thing that I feel good about bringing to Detroit are some of the things that I was already doing here. Detroit would have a jazz festival but the tents would go up and the tents would come down. That's all you would know for the rest of the year. I realized in Detroit that the Detroit Symphony had a jazz series and a youth jazz program at the symphony, they're very enlightened

But I started knocking on those doors, and doing partnerships with them, and bringing an artist-in-residence. I had real fun with artists-in-residence. Christian McBride, when he was the artist-in-residence, wanted to do something that was Motown specific so he did a tribute to Marvin Gaye. He did all these big band charts and did his own tribute to Marvin Gaye which was really beautiful. I also had Mulgrew Miller. I said to him, "what would you like to do that is specific to Detroit?" He said, "well, I know this sounds crazy but I'd really like to do something with Aretha Franklin. I mean I'd like to sit down with her and have her play, and have me play, and have her sing." I said, "well, that's a tall order but we'll see if we can pull that off." We got pretty close. A guy that was on my board actually knew Aretha really well, they were in elementary school together. So he calls her up and told her about Mulgrew. One day my phone rings, I pick it up, and she says, "Miss Pontremoli? This is Miss Franklin." I was like, "holy crap!" She said, "I know that you want me to do something with Mulgrew Miller. I'm not familiar with him. If you would send me a couple of his CDs I will get back to you." I thought, "yea right." Sure enough, a couple weeks later she called me back and said, "I listened to Mulgrew and I love him. He sounds a little like Art Tatum and a little like Oscar Peterson but he has his own voice." I said, "wow, that's deep." It shows you what she knew about music.

AAJ: I've heard she was a great pianist herself.

TP: Well that's what he was so excited about. He wanted her to sing some of her stuff that we would play, maybe in a jazz way, but he also wanted her to play the piano. Ultimately, she didn't do it. She said, "I'm okay at the piano but I'm not like Mulgrew, but I don't think he'd want to sing if I was singing." [laughs] Good point. So we didn't do it.

So anyways, yea, it was just fabulous. I actually got a Joyce Award for John Clayton to writing a three-movement piece about Hank Jones, Elvin Jones, and Thad Jones because they were from Pontiac. I think that was the 30th Anniversary at Detroit and he wrote this wonderful piece called the "T.H.E. [Thad, Hank, Elvin] Family Detroit." It was for a big band and he used a local big band. It was like a concerto grosso with the Clayton Brothers Quintet in the middle. It was spectacular. I'll never forget that night. It was like a misty, chilly, night and the place was packed but you could hear a pin drop. I can't say enough great things about Detroit.

AAJ: When you're programming your festival how much is based on your own taste and how much is based on what you think your audience wants to hear?

TP: That's a really good question. I mean I think that there's so much that you have to consider. For instance, in Detroit, you can put a Wayne Shorter in a ticketed concert and sell out a concert in a three thousand seat hall. In Cleveland you can't do that. You're not going to get three thousand people in Cleveland. You might get eight hundred but you're not going to get three thousand. So some of it is like, you have to think about your market. You have to think about how much you're willing to pay to put on that kind of an artist. What makes sense?

So I think of things that I love but I also think of things that I know my market will pay attention to. The thing that I love about doing the festival the way we're doing it now is that, because it's condensed into a weekend, the festival buyers buy a pass and if they are attracted to the big shows they go to the smaller shows and they hear people that they wouldn't necessarily think they were going to buy a single ticket for. That has been really satisfying. It gives you that flexibility because you know you're still going to have critical mass. Even though you're in a smaller hall people that might have just bought the pass because it's the best buy will either not go to a concert and go outside, or, say, "let's try it out." The halls that we perform in, one is twenty seven hundred seats, one is a thousand seats, and one is five hundred seats. So you can put on some more experimental artists or things that people will be like, "well I don't know who this person is." But last year I went to a lot of stuff I didn't know and I loved it. I mean partially you have to educate your audience when you're in the Midwest.

AAJ: So what you're saying is it's both, some of your own tastes and some of what they want to hear as well.

TP: Yes. If I get excited about something I really want them to be excited about it too. And that's one of the things about having this condensed festival in a weekend is that everybody's out on the street and people come up to me and say, "oh my God. I just heard so and so and it was phenomenal." People come out and they almost have tears in their eyes because they're so grateful. In a city like Cleveland we have a couple of nightclubs but the nightclubs can't necessarily afford to put it in a $5,000 act. They can't afford it and so there's no way these artists can come here unless I bring them in. So, yeah, it's taste, it's excitement. Like Snarky Puppy, it took me four years to get Snarky Puppy, not because they wouldn't do it but because the scheduling didn't work. That's when you hear the cry, "we need to see Kamasi Washington," or, "we need to see Snarky Puppy."

AAJ: I'm a musician so I want to ask a few questions from the musician perspective. What's your advice to musicians when it comes to applying for festivals?

TP: It's not advice because what happens is we go on YouTube, we see people, we do all that. You can send a note or you can send a package and all that stuff. When you don't get chosen it is not for the reasons that it may feel like. That's the thing that I want to communicate. It's not about, "are you good enough?" There's so many great musicians and when you only have like nine slots to fill you really... like that was the joy I had in Detroit. I had booked over a hundred acts. That was nuts. So then you could really take a lot of different people. I think it's just a matter of you run out of slots and you're also curating. So you're trying to make sure different things are represented. There's a lot of built-in limitations. There's no one way.

AAJ: Do you work with artists who don't have agents and who are representing themselves?

TP: I have, yes. I can't think of any names off the top of my head but I certainly have. As a matter of fact, the first time I worked with José James that's what I did. I sent him an email and I said, "Christian McBride and I are putting together a tribute to Marvin Gaye and we thought that you might be a really good fit." I got an email back from him immediately saying, "I love Marvin Gaye!" [laughs] At that point I just dealt directly with him.

AAJ: Obviously, I have to ask you about dealing with COVID-19. Of course your festival is cancelled this year. How do you think it's going to affect future festivals?

TP: Okay so I definitely feel that it's going to affect future festivals here because I think the economy is going to be affected. Cleveland is kind of a weird town. It's really culturally rich. The Cleveland Orchestra and the Cleveland Museum of Art are world class, huge organizations. They take a lot of support. We don't have a lot of corporate headquarters here. We don't have that kind of money for sponsorship. We get sponsorship but it's hard to compete with that and Playhouse Square. Playhouse Square has the largest Broadway subscriber audience outside of New York, right here in Cleveland. So I worry about the economic fallout.

What we're doing this year, and we're doing it because we come out of a community college, the President of the college was very eager to see if we had any options because we canceled the June event. So we suggested this virtual jazz festival. So what we're going to do is highlight our Cleveland talent because they're here, they haven't been able to play, and they haven't had any gigs. You know this drill. So, we're going to pay them well, we're taking them to a very COVID-safe environment in July, they're going to video tape their material, and we're going to put together a show. The show will be streamed in August. It's basically going to tell the story of the jazz festival. We're going to point out the people that are jazz legends in this town. We're going to talk about the people who are working musicians who went through our program. We're going to show video footage from Tommy LiPuma's birthday bash that we did in 2016. We're going to dress it up but we're also going to highlight our own musicians.

That's how we're dealing with it because it seemed like the right thing to do. It's not going to take nearly the budget that the festival would. What we have to worry about is the college because now the college is facing all kinds of enrollment problems because of COVID-19. What's going to happen is they're going to make big cutbacks. One of the cutbacks could be the festival and we just have to be prepared for that. We just don't know. It would be sad and tragic if that's what happens but we can only hope that are we going to be able to survive this.

AAJ: I think we're all feeling that way.

TP: Yeah! I mean look at the travel industry and the airline industry. How long is it going to take for that to come back? I think it's going to take a while. It's not like jazz doesn't have enough challenges [laughs]. It's kind of unfortunate but we definitely have to make every effort and it is crazy people like me that want it to survive. You keep working at it and wake up every day to go to bat for it.

AAJ: This is my last question. Obviously this year is an anomaly and what comes after, we don't know, but if I would have asked you a few months ago what would you have said about the health of the jazz festival business?

TP: I feel like it's always challenged. We have seen growth since we've been doing the festival the way we've been doing it, making it a Cleveland summer weekend destination. And, I think that the stuff that we do throughout the year helps us build a following and strengthens us in the community. But, it's always an uphill battle. We're not New York and we're not San Francisco so we just always feel like it's tricky here and now it's just going to be more so.

Photo credit: Lou McClung

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