This Friday, June 17th will mark the eighth annual West Oak Lane Jazz and Arts Festival, a free three-day musical event that’s earned praise for its neighborhood impact and criticism for its hefty price tag.
The roots of the festival date back to the 1980s, according to Jack Kitchen, president and CEO of Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corporation. The current format of the festival — a three-day celebration of jazz and arts — began in 2004. But in the 1980s, much smaller Super Saturday Street Fair events were the community attraction. Kitchen considers them a close relative of the jazz fest.
Almost 30 years ago, a group of community volunteers in West Oak Lane, later named the Friends of OARC, decided to revive their neighborhood by helping OARC organize the Super Saturdays. The goal was to stimulate the interest once present for shoppers on the 7100 block of Ogontz Avenue. The event would later grow into the present three-day celebration, featuring cultural festivities, a Gospel concert, jazz performances, an evening of Arts at the West Oak Lane Senior Center and a street fair, which was a direct carry-over from the original Super Saturday event.
“The festival was expanded in 2004 as a marketing tool to rebrand West Oak Lane as a safe community of choice,” Kitchen said.
Between 2000 and 2003, he explained, homes were not selling in the neighborhood and new businesses were not taking hold despite housing renovation efforts and increased commercial construction. In 2000, Kitchen estimated, about 250 vacant homes and numerous blighted commercial spaces lined the streets.
“Something was needed to showcase West Oak Lane to the world,” Kitchen said. “I came up with the idea of a Jazz and Arts festival.”
According to an article by Christopher Hepp in the Inquirer last year, organizers estimated growing attendance at the festival over each year leading up to last years’ show. OARC estimated 500,000 attendees on its application for state funds last year, but according to Hepp’s article, only a fraction of that number attended the three-day event that used a $1 million state grant. Kitchen disagrees with Hepp’s assessment of attendance numbers, and said he never assumed record breaking numbers for the last festival.
“Last year we intentionally drove down attendance due to the impact the enormous crowds had on residents’ everyday life in 2009,” Kitchen said. Some 2009 acts appealed to younger audiences and drew crowds that created trouble, Kitchen said, and he didn’t want to continue that trend. “A full jazz lineup was likely to bring in lesser numbers of festival attendees.”
In 2010, the festival received a state grant of $1 million, and this year the state funds will cap out at $821,000, according to Kitchen.
Kitchen considers the festival a boon for West Oak Lane and he credits growth in housing sales in the neighborhood between 2004 and 2008, in part, to the festival’s impact. According to Kitchen, there are less than 70 vacant homes in West Oak Lane now, and he thinks even after the three-day festival packs up, the commercial areas still experience a swell in shopping.
The festival also provides four days of employment for more than 2,000 people, including musicians, artists, and food and craft vendors, according to OARC.
Sam’s Meats owner and Wadsworth Avenue Business Association president, Thomas Pell said the festival has been good for business and brings diversity.
“Last year on an early Sunday,” Pell said. “I hear these two people sitting next to me in Margate, New Jersey talking about heading over to the jazz festival.”
Since Margate is about 65 miles away, Pell sees this as evidence of the extent of the jazz festival’s appeal.
“Everybody’s into it. …It’s a very festive event for three days. You can’t go wrong,” Pell said.
Headlining the show this year is the legendary Chaka Khan, along with other well known artists like Chrisette Michelle, Roy Ayers, Eddie Palmieri, Gerald Veasley and many more.
The festival features indoor and outdoor performances along Ogontz Avenue between the 7100 and 7400 blocks. Festivities commence noon Friday, and staged shows begin at 5:45 p.m.
NewsWorks coverage coming up about West Oak Lane Jazz Festival will include:
Your guide the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival
Neighborhood impact of Jazz Fest
The money trail and other controversies of Jazz Fest explained
Your guide to shopping and eating at Jazz Fest
Jazz Fest search for the stars – a video profile of the three finalists in the Jazz Fest talent search.
Parents’ guide to Jazz Fest
The Jazz Fest experience – a video of the fun and festivities at Jazz Fest
The Jazz Fest tracker – a live blog and photo slideshow throughout the weekend updated realtime from the Jazz Fest.
Tune in to NewsWorks Tonight on 90.9 FM at 6 p.m. Friday for a conversation about the West Oak Lane Jazz Festival with Patrick Cobbs, editor for the Germantown/West Oak Lane NewsWorks page.
For the complete Jazz Fest lineup this year, visit the festival’s official website.