Smitty: Each year in March for the last 16 years, coming up on 17, Reading, Pennsylvania is transformed into a Mecca of great jazz music and tradition. It has featured the music of current as well as legendary jazz musicians in the most gorgeous settings throughout the beautiful city of Reading. Joining me to talk about this great festival is the spearhead and general manager and organizer of the Berks Jazz Festival, a great guy, one of the beloved of the jazz community; please welcome the incredible Mr. John Ernesto. John, how are you?
John Ernesto (JE): I’m doing great, Smitty. How are you?
Smitty: I’m wonderful, thank you. Wow, John, this is the 17th year and you have the privilege of being the kickoff each year as far as major festivals go, so you really set the tone for the rest of the year, and that’s really a great position to be in. How did this great stuff get started?
JE: Well, 17 years ago, the Berks Arts Council, which presents the festival, teamed up with our Visitors Center and Chamber of Commerce and a few other people and a group of hotel owners to try to create a cultural tourism event in a traditionally slow time of the year for tourism, which obviously was March. It looked like nothing was going on, so the hotels and everybody were trying to find something that would attract some new visitors to town, and it started out as a three-day event and the first artist we ever had was Wynton Marsalis, and from there we’ve had this great journey of 17 years to where we’re at today. But it started out as a very small event, trying to create tourism in an off-time here, which is why it ended up in March. Many people always ask us “Why don’t you do this in the summertime?” Well, that’s how it all started. We were trying to find something to energize our tourism business in an off period.
Smitty: Well, let me tell you, you have really energized the off period because a lot of people take note of the Berks Jazz Festival, so the Berks Arts Council there has done a magnificent job throughout the years because we all look to that festival to see who’s coming out with what, who has the great shows for the year. There’s a lot of buzz around what happens in March, so being the kickoff like that has really set a great tone for music throughout the rest of the year, so you’re in a very good position and people truly enjoy this great festival.
JE: Yes, it’s great and our goal when it started was to try to develop a positive event and we have a very simple philosophy that we maintain every year: take care of the artists, take care of the fans, and everything else will take care of itself. We have a great team of people from the Berks Arts Council. We have almost, oh gosh, close to 400 volunteers who give up their time and energy to the event each year to make it happen, so one of the things that makes us the proudest is that we get great feedback from the fans and the artists, who say it’s like an old hometown week. Everybody comes home and they feel very welcome there and very comfortable, so that’s what we like.
Smitty: Yes, and it’s a great little town. I love it. I love coming in there and you can just feel the warmth, you can feel the atmosphere of great music and the arts, and just a great community of people that come out and support it, and it’s amazing that this is not just a weekend concert. I mean, this runs, what, a couple of weeks and there is music throughout that whole period. There’s just something for everyone.
JE: It started out as three days and we slowly grew to a fourth day, then on our 10th anniversary we said “Let’s try to do something unique and different,” so we decided to try a 10-day festival to attach another whole weekend, so we did that, it was well received by everyone involved, and we have never turned back from that, so we’ve been 10 days since our 10th anniversary.
Smitty: Yeah, and you mentioned the word “unique.” One of the things that’s truly unique about this is that the festival, the music, is throughout the town. You have venues that are spread out throughout the city where everyone can really get a great mix of music everywhere and enjoy the city; I think that’s a beautiful thing. It doesn’t happen everywhere. It’s just like a community jazz festival.
JE: Yeah, we have I guess it’s close to 35 what we consider major ticketed events at different venues and then we have another around 100 plus events at clubs, restaurants, churches, community centers, so there’s music going on all the time. If someone wants to just go to a club or a restaurant and hear jazz without going to a ticketed event, they can do that as well.
Smitty: Yeah, and great music too!
JE: Well, it makes us really unique in that many festivals are a central area with one or two stages. Our event is every show’s a show unto itself where it’s the artist’s show. They’re not limited to time, they’re not limited to a hard schedule where they’re following four or five acts. Every show’s a show unto itself in a different performing art space.
Smitty: Yes, and there’s something for everyone. Even the kids get involved. There’s some educational programs for the kids.
JE: Yes, there is
Smitty: Talk a little bit about that.
JE: Well, we’re very proud of that. We have a great education committee. We work hand in hand with the Reading Musical Foundation in town, with the Arts Council, and the artists. We reach out to schools, we have artists go into the classrooms and do master classes. We’re always trying to have some kind of interaction between the festival and education, and every year we pick a Berks High School All-Star Jazz Band that performs twice during the festival. It’s a big band and we bring in a guest conductor. This year